It sounded appealing, this idea to charge Dallas County jail inmates $25 a day, room and board, on misdemeanor offenses. The problem is, state law provides no consequence for failing to pay – except, we presume, more jail time. When we first heard about this a few months ago, we asked around. The consensus was that it would cost more to hire the people required to collect a jail fee – and chase down deadbeats – than the fee would generate (i.e., a net loss). We applaud the county for looking under every seat cushion for loose change, but this is one idea that should stay buried.Dallas County already has $200 million in outstanding fines it hasn't collected, so I can't imagine how anyone thinks they can squeeze jail costs out of folks cycling in and out of the jail. Not to mention probation and other fees and costs already put a substantial financial burden on ex-offenders that's a significant barrier to successfully completing community supervision; this would just add to the problem instead of relieve it, worsening public safety for the sake of the short-term bottom line.
If Dallas County commissioners are really that desperate, there are plenty of ways they can reduce jail costs without resorting to strategies that worsen crime and recidivism. For example, at a symposium in San Antonio in February focused on jail overcrowding (see Grits coverage), Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation:
suggested that county commissioners could "designate misdemeanors that are non-jailable in that county, which also eliminates indigent defense costs." (See his power point presentation.) No county has taken advantage of that authority, yet, but it's a good idea.He's referring to the B misdemeanors for which the Legislature last year gave police officers discretion to issue citations instead of arrest in HB 2391. But that's not the only category of arrests which the county could designate as non-jailable.
Class C misdemeanors may make up a bigger or at least significant share of discretionary jail use. I was surprised to learn recently that the majority of discretionary arrests by the Austin Police Department were actually for Class C misdemeanors which carry a punishment only of a fine, not jail time. As I wrote on Grits in reaction to a recent analysis of APD arrest practices by the newly formed group Austin Public Safety Solutions:
... 37% of Austin PD arrests are eligible to receive citations instead, according to the report. That's a big number - nearly 16,000 trips to the jail each year. While giving officers discretion wouldn't mean all those trips were abated, if half of them received citations that would make a significant difference - a reduction of around 22 trips to the jail per day with all the expense and extra time that implies.Of those nearly 16,000 optional arrests, said the report (pdf), 9,902 were for for Class C misdemeanors. The US Supreme Court declared in 2001 in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, a Texas case, that arrests for fine-only offenses were not per se unconstitutional, but nor were they required. In Austin last year, 9,902 people were arrested and taken to jail for offenses so small-time that a judge could not legally sentence them to incarceration, even if they receive the maximum sentence possible. I don't know if those numbers are similar in other cities, but it wouldn't surprise me.
Given that reality, and since officers have discretion to issue citations instead, if the commissioners court named many of these offenses "non-jailable," as Levin suggests, it would have a big impact. Add to those Class Cs the categories of offenses where HB 2391 gave officers new discretion, and all of a sudden that adds up to big-league cost savings considering how much of the county budget is devoted to the jail.
Necessity is the mother of invention, so when counties are strapped they tend to embrace creative solutions on jails that they wouldn't otherwise consider - some good, some bad. Dallas County shouldn't solve its budget crisis by nickel and diming every department or piling onto the backs of the poorest among us, but by revamping outdated and wasteful uses of the jail. Though the paper says they're "looking under every seat cushion for loose change," by ignoring these options they're doing so while looking past the big stack of money in the middle of the room.