Dallas County's biggest expense is administering the local criminal justice system. But with cooperation, there are innovative ways to reduce those costs and run the system smoothly and efficiently." That is the mission of the new Dallas County Criminal Justice Advisory Board, which met [yesterday] in the Old Red Courthouse downtown.Teleconferencing for small-time bond hearings may save a few dollars here and there, but the key bits of data are $95 for routine transportation costs and the fact that cost-per-inmate is triple the average for the prisoner's first day, an understandable fact (because of processing costs) that front-loads costs for prisoners who're only incarcerated a short time.
The advisory board seeks to involve every part of the local criminal justice system: the police departments, sheriff, judges, probation, prosecutors, etc. This coordination will "allow us not to have surprises" when decisions are made, as Dallas County Commissioner Mike Cantrell put it.
The advisory board's organizational structure is still being worked on, but already the group has identified a way to cut the cost of prisoner transports to the county jails.
Research discovered that half of all prisoners transported from city jails to the county jails bond out within 24 hours. That begs the question: why pay more money to take them to the county jail when they're going to be released within a day?
The Sheriff's Department transports prisoners in a van. Each trip costs about $95, according to county budget director Ryan Brown. Let's say the sheriff averages one prisoner transport a day (a conservative guess). That comes to about $2,820 a month.
Then there is the cost of housing them in the jail, which is more than $40 a day. But the first day's costs are three times that due to medical screening and other related book-in costs, said Ron Stretcher, the county's criminal justice director.
A solution he's looking into is to have cities contract to use the county's magistrates, who would set bond for prisoners in city jails via a video conferencing system. That will save money and ease the jail population. A win-win, as politicians like to say.The advisory board will hold its first operational meeting at the beginning of the year.
These data jibe with a theme I've hammered away at on Grits for several years - that the cause of jail overcrowding over the last decade hasn't been rising crime but mostly optional pretrial detention of low-level offenders - decisions made by judges who for whatever reason have become less and less likely to grant bail over the last decade or so, particularly in most of the bigger Texas counties. According to Dr. Tony Fabelo (see slide 21 - ppt), overall jail population increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, [while] the number of pretrial detainees increased 49.2% over the same period.
In the face of bloated jail costs drowning county budgets, these trends given me special motivation to advocate more widespread use of new discretion by officers to give citations instead of arresting for low-level misdemeanors. Each time they do so (and the officer decides whether it's safe to let the offender go with a ticket or if they need to go to jail to protect public safety), it saves the county both the cost of securely transporting a low-risk inmate and the tripled costs to the county for the inmate's processing and first day's stay.
In Austin, 37% of those brought to the Travis County Jail were optional arrests where the officer could have chosen to just give a ticket. That represents about 16,000 arrests per year for Class C or citation-eligible Class B offenses. Even cutting that number by 1/3 would result in a huge savings.
I asked yesterday how the credit crunch might affect criminal justice policy. Add to that list, as a couple of commenters noted, that it's a good bet we'll see a more enthusiastic embrace for prison and jail diversion strategies and strengthened probation programs, especially at the county level where support for new approaches has been excellent in some places but spotty in others. The new economic realities and reduced viability for new jail projects may combine to get locals more fully committed to the path being forged by the Texas Legislature on prison and jail diversion
If this new advisory board can help move the Dallas commissioners court away from their recent slash and burn approach and toward more creative, constructive solutions, more power to them. I've got a few offhand suggestions where the committee could start, as does Judge Cynthia Kent from Tyler.