Why, one wonders? Did you ever consider, Judge Baker, that when voters twice rejected jail bonds by overwhelming margins that they might have wanted you to go in a different direction?
Repeatedly Baker and Co. have rejected that chance in favor of a quixotic jail building quest, and they did so again this week. Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent on Monday argued in vain for the commissioners court to avoid a jail-bond rejection hat trick. Reported the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("Smith County commissioners rule out new court facilities," June 3):
You've gotta wonder why commissioners remain fixated on new jail building instead of seeking out other means of solving their problems in the face of not one but two failed jail plebiscites? What do voters have to do to send a message to the Smith County Commissioners Court they don't want new jail bonds?Judge Kent attended Monday’s Commissioners Court meeting to make the case that new courts facilities would do more to relieve jail overcrowding than new jail space.“We cannot jail-build our way out of this problem,” she said. “By the time a new jail opens, it will be overcrowded. Building more jail space just increases the room to backlog cases.”But the county could “case-dispose our way out of jail overcrowding,” she said.“Smith County taxpayers would fare better spending money to build courts,” Judge Kent said.She added that there could be an additional advantage to new, better courts facilities: more respect for the law.“A new courts facility can be designed to be dignified and stately to enhance society’s adherence to rule of law,” she said.“I would love to see a new courts building,” responded County Judge Joel Baker. “But I don’t believe that in the state of our current economy that people will support it. I believe people see the jail is the critical need.”Commissioner Bill McGinnis also agreed with Judge Kent, but said the court must remain realistic about what voters will approve.“I think you proved your point that courts are critical to keeping the jail population down, with your successful AIC (Alternative Incarceration Center jail diversion) program,” McGinnis said. “But we need a lot of things in this county, and with $4-a-gallon gas, I’m not sure what the public will support.”Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said commissioners can’t get sidetracked.“It’s important we stay focused,” she said. “We’re working on a long-range plan, something no other court has done before us. But we need to stay focused on building a new jail.”
Judge Kent was the most prominent local official who opposed more jail building, so I'm sure to some extent the jail building faction on the court (which appears to include all five members!) views her as "the opposition." But she also is the only Tylerite who's identified small-government solutions that save money instead of cost the taxpayers.
All along Judge Kent has been more in tune with the desires of the local electorate, but jail-fixated commissioners won't listen to her. (Several of her most significant proposals to reduce jail overcrowding were shelved when first proposed.) Will it to take a third walloping at the polls - or perhaps the ouster of sitting commissioners - to convince officials that voters meant what they said when they turned down jail bonds in 2006 and 2007?
RELATED: See also, Cynthia Kent: Smith County needs more court space, not a bigger jail, and here's her letter to county officials arguing the county would get more bang for the buck by expanding courts than jail building.
UPDATE: I forwarded this post to Judge Kent who replied thusly:
Another Tylerite who did not want their name used informed me that:Date: June 4, 2008
TO: Scott Henson
FROM: Judge Kent
RE: Smith County Jail Overcrowding
Dear Mr. Henson,
Thank you, again, for your continued interest in this issue. The County Judge and County Commissioners were very polite to me on Monday. However, they made it abundantly clear that they were unanimous in their decision to build a "scaled down" jail, build a new sheriff's office and other administrative offices but are NOT interested in more court facilities. They indicated, but did not say, that if a new court was created that it will be crammed into the old courthouse. This courthouse was built in 1954 for two courts and now houses seven courts. Perhaps in the future it will house eight or nine courts and become even more unsafe for the public, jurors, witnesses, defendants, attorneys, judges, court staff, and court observers.
Insanity has been defined as "continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results." Smith County has ignored the needs of the justice system, judges, courts, and citizens and has since 1984 generally addressed jail overcrowding by building more jail bed space. I predict this new jail construction plan will cost millions of dollars, if approved by the voters, and once constructed the new jail will be overcrowded the first day it is opened. Sounds crazy to me.
Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent
the situation is even worse than it looks. The reason is that commissioners are planning on a November bond election. But so is the Tyler Independent School District. If the county asks for, say, $60 million, on the same ballot on which the schools ask for $130 to $200 million, what are the chances of a yes/yes outcome? And if voters pick one of the two, which will prevail: schoolkids or inmates?To judge by the last two jail vote outcomes in Tyler, it's pretty easy to guess the answer that last question.