The one key exception to that are votes on jail and prison bonds. So with the November elections looming, lets take a look at new jails and prisons proposed this year by Texas pols - more than $600 million total, plus other sundry criminal justice expenses.
Statewide, the Legislature wrapped debt to pay for new prisons into a larger, more innocuous set of bond proposals that goes before voters Nov. 6. Reported the Austin Statesman ("State asks voters for $1 billion in bonds for construction, repairs," Oct. 8), "The most costly item in Proposition 4 would be $233 million for three new minimum- to medium-security prisons. Also included is $28 million for one new facility and renovations at the Texas Youth Commission."
While new prisons might have been vulnerable in a stand-alone vote, linking the debt to parks spending and funds aimed at the mentally retarded probably make these bonds a shoo-in. Personally I believe such disparate projects should be put before the voters individually. I shouldn't have to vote for three unnecessary prisons to approve support for parks and the developmentally disabled, but that's the Janus-faced option the Legislature has placed in front of us.
In Harris County, reported the Houston Chronicle last week ("Massive bond could feed Harris' appetite for construction," Oct. 4), voters will decide whether to approve more than a half billion dollars in new debt to expand jail capacity. Bonds would pay for a new central processing center for the jail ($213 million, plus $32 million from the city), to renovate the old jail to become a juvenile detention center ($115 million), to pay for a new morgue and crime lab building ($100 million) and to build a new family law center ($90 million). The combined new cost including staffing will boost jail operations from 16% to 25% of the county budget and require new taxes. (Of course, that assumes it's even possible to find enough guards to staff a new jail.)
God knows, Houston needs a better crime lab, but Harris County officials lumped that critical item in with unnecessary law enforcement pork that voters should reject. Detect a pattern? One up or down vote. If voters want to fix the crime lab, they must also agree to building jail space Harris County can't afford or properly staff.
Like most counties in the state with over crowded jails, Harris County's problems don't stem from increasing crime but from decisions by elected officials, especially judges and the DA, for how to handle low-level, nonviolent offenders. As Grits reported in 2005:
According to a recent consultant's report (Word document) by the Justice Management Institute, a major reason is clear: A shift in bail policy over the last decade to require cash bond in more cases instead of personal bond, or releasing defendants on their promise to later appear in court. Half of all inmates presently in the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial; a large proportion couldn't make bail.Such decisions by local judges may benefit the bail bond industry, but they do so at the taxpayers' expense. (See Grits' 2005 series on Harris County jail overcrowding.) To me it takes a lot of chutzpah to create such a problem then soak taxpayers for your mistakes; if these judges won't change their approach, Harris County may get a chance to elect a bunch of new ones in 2008.
Though other factors are also at play, much of the Harris County Jail's overincarceration crisis can be explained by this shift in policy. In other words, Harris County's jail overcrowding crisis is a self-inflicted wound.
In the last ten years, the number of misdemeanor defendants who were ordered to pay bail instead of being released on "personal bond" increased more than 30,000%! No, that's not a typo: It increased more than thirty thousand percent!
In Smith County (Tyler), voters will consider whether to approve a $125 million jail bond proposal, even though voters rejected new jail bonds last year that would have cost $50 million less. State District Judge Cynthia Kent has valiantly promoted alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders, but with the exception of one successful program, most of her advice has gone unheeded. The new proposal will increase county taxes by 22.8%.
One thing both Harris and Smith Counties have in common, btw: law enforcement in those jurisdictions won't use all the tools at their disposal right now to manage their jails, but want voters to approve more construction even when more effective, less expensive solutions haven't been tried.
Police and Sheriff's Departments in both counties have refused to make use of new tools created in the last Legislative session to reduce jail overcrowding. Sponsored by Republican House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, HB 2391 gave law enforcement officers the discretion to give certain low-level nonviolent misdemeanor offenders a citation and summons rather than take them all downtown for booking into the jail. Voters should demand officials try this and other jail overcrowding solutions before approving new construction.
Perhaps the only justified jail building proposal on any Texas ballot is in Howard County, where the old jail simply doesn't comply with minimalist modern jail standards and cannot be renovated. Even so, more than 60% of local voters rejected a new jail last year. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards told local officials if the bonds don't pass this year they'll shut the jail down.
I'll be watching closely to see what Harris and Smith County voters do on their jail bonds - I've not heard of an organized opposition in Harris County, though a voters group is opposing the new jail in Tyler. If one or both go down it'll signal that attitudes toward incarceration are really beginning to shift. In Howard County, voters more or less are backed into a corner, while I'm afraid the skids are greased, as well, for approving new state prison debt.
Note to readers: Be sure to let me know about any Texas county jail building proposals on the November 6 ballot that I missed. (Image via UT-Austin's LBJ School)