Thursday, October 30, 2008

County Commissioners key to jail decisions

I'm always pleased to see policy debates about public safety make it into electoral campaigns, but the back and forth in Dallas this election cycle between the incumbent Sheriff and challenger over the jail have confirmed my sense that County Commissioners Court races are where jail problems and solutions really need to be discussed.

Last week at the Dallas News, Kevin Krause analyzed the two Sheriff campaigns' descriptions of the jail's problems and who's to blame and pronounced, "Neither is entirely correct" ("No easy answers on jail: Frequently cited issue in Dallas' Sheriff's race is often oversimplified," Oct. 24). For example, the challenger tells voters the jail still isn't passing state inspections, without mentioning that fire-safety improvements and other upgrades needed to pass simply weren't funded by the Commissioners Court:

Federal inspectors agreed earlier this year that there was still room to improve. A separate report from the state in January noted that intercoms were still broken, numerous toilets, showers and lavatories weren't working, and air vents were clogged with toilet paper.

The county commissioners are still spending money on maintenance and repairs. This week, they approved an additional $63,000 to replace more sinks and bulkheads and complete shower improvements – part of a half-million-dollar job. ...

County officials say the jails have been under intense scrutiny not seen before because of problems with fire-safety equipment as well as medical and mental health services, none of which the sheriff controls.

Allen Clemson, the Commissioners Court administrator, said that had the life-safety issues been resolved, state jail inspectors probably wouldn't have failed the jails this year for sanitation and maintenance problems.

That point is not lost on Sheriff Valdez, who has expressed frustration that it's taken four years and counting to replace fire-detection and smoke-removal systems. The commissioners, she said, tried to save money on the front end.

Dallas right now has an empty jail wing that was closed because the commissioners court wouldn't/can't/won't hire enough guards to staff it, necessitating at one point during Valdez's tenure the impromptu release of nearly a thousand inmates to comply with state jail standards, all for reasons entirely beyond her control. Even so, lately, the Dallas Commissioners Court has been insisting overtly that the Sheriff fill up the jail with petty Class C (ticket only) offenders to boost fine income. So they want to use the jail to extract money from average people who can't pay large fines, but don't want to pay to keep it up.

Jails need to be debated in county commissioners court races because they control the purse strings and paying for jails and the justice system is typically the most expensive portion of the county budget. The Sheriff plays almost purely a management role, though certainly if the jail is poorly managed, the Sheriff must be accountable - it's really the primary job function, after all, especially in a large urban county. But a sheriff can't, for example, install fire safety equipment when the county refuses to buy it. Besides, as Krause notes, it's the pocketbook issues voters really care about, anyway:
How inmates are treated isn't one of voters' top issues, political analysts point out. But they say voters do care about financial liabilities posed by jail problems because those have an impact on their wallets. Dallas County was hit with recent settlements and judgments totaling nearly $2 million in jail-neglect lawsuits. The alleged abuse occurred under the previous sheriff.
For further evidence that county commissioners are where all the policymaking action is, look no further than 90 miles east of Dallas in my hometown of Tyler where the Smith County Commissioners Court has placed unwanted jail bonds on the ballot for the third year in a row. For good or ill, it's the Commissioners Court there who are pushing the jail hard, even though voters have twice overwhelmingly opposed it. Other elected offiicals - the Sheriff, judges, the DA - have been peripheral players in Tyler's debate for one simple reason: The Commissioners Court holds the purse strings.

Paying for jails and courts is the single biggest expense in county budgets, but we rarely hear the economics of crime and punishment debated. The media and the public tend to portray jails as the Sheriff's job, or look to judges, only, for issues affecting the courts. More often than not, though, because of the structure of Texas government, the most important decisions about what county government actually does (i.e., what it pays for) lie firmly in the hands of the Commissioners Court.


Anonymous said...

It was refreshing to see commissioner Price involved in the jail. I believe he takes his jail responsibilities and statutory mandate as a county commissioner to provide safe and suitable jails for Dallas county.

I thought it was interesting that former Dallas County Sheriff Bowles denied Price access to the jail for inspection purposes. I believe the commissioner's authority to inspect the jail comes from Texas LGC 351.001.

Anonymous said...

Then the commissioners should have litigated the issue. Though Price may be able to take credit for bringing the jail closer to compliance with jail standards, he also bears part of the responsibility for it becoming a problem in the first place given his long tenure on the commissioners' court.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

JWP certainly deserves some of the blame for insisting the jail be used as a debtors' prison to extract money from traffic violators, not to mention his ideas for mulcting inmate families (typically among the poorest of the poor) to subsidize property owners' low tax rates. Ditto for gutting the public defender office which worsened overcrowding problems.

If the Commissioners Court had simply paid for needed improvements four years ago, JWP's weekly "sanitation" meetings would probably not be necessary.

Anonymous said...

This would probably send JWP around the bend, but he long ago ceased to be District 3's "Our Man Downtown." Now he's just "the Man."

But on a more responsive note, although the firings and the driving other lawyers of conscience to resign resulted in an unprecedented spike in turnover, it wasn't exactly a "gutting." But I think I'm really arguing a trivial point here. It certainly throw the office into disarray for a period probably impacting jail population. The real point is that the commissioners and the budget department micro-manage the office without a clue as to what they're doing. It's obvious Price had his own agenda in getting rid of Brad Lollar and the other commissioners let him have his way--either because they have no stones (generally a given) or they were sold a bill of goods.

And the truth is the commissioners never have paid any regard to national standards regarding public defender offices, funding it like they fund everything else--penny wise and pound foolish. And this philosophy has played out in the funding of the jail as well--resulting in the huge expenditures that needed to be made to bring it into compliance.

And, yes, this idea of filling up the jail with Class C violators is yet another example of Price's and the rest of the court's short-sightedness.

Gadfly said...

Totally agree with thjird "anonymous" on JWP.

Almost everything associated with the inland port, from feuding with Hutchins' mayor over bridge money through having a regional master plan or not, has JWP's sticky fingers on it, usually with either the appearance or the actuality of money, a power play, or both being involved.