Sheriff Smith goes on to claim that "Even when all the beds aren't full, ... 10 to 15 percent are needed to ensure, say, DWI offenders aren't locked up with suspected murderers." That sounds a little high to me; I've heard it said 5-7% of beds needed to stay empty for that purpose, not 10-15%. It sounds to me like he's overstating the number of empty beds he must maintain just like he overstated the threat of federal litigation forcing the county to construct a new jail: Because Judge Cynthia Kent's jail diversion program has worked so well that currently the county has space in the jail but still chooses to pay for outside beds.
The most contentious local bond election Tuesday in Texas might be in Smith County, where voters in the ultraconservative heart of East Texas could reject a jail expansion proposal for the fourth time in three years. Each have been sound defeats that came in better times for taxpayers.
The latest pitch is a $59.6 million, 694-bed addition offered in a widening national financial crisis. Like other local ballot measures Texas, the plan could be sunk by economic fears.
"They're whole-package conservatives here," said state District Judge Cynthia Kent, who leads the opposition to a new Smith County jail. "They're law and order, but they're also conservative about giving us more of their money."
Financially squeezed taxpayers elsewhere may feel the same. More than 50 school districts in Texas are asking voters to approve tax hikes Tuesday, hoping to fare better than at least two dozen districts that have already been rejected by voters in tax rollback elections.
In Dallas County, a $747 million package to build a new Parkland Memorial Hospital is among the largest bond proposals in the state. Without any organized opposition, the crumbling economic climate may be the biggest hurdle.
"There's so much bad economic news nationally," said Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas. "Consumer confidence is falling off a cliff. That could affect voter outcomes."
It's a possibility even jail supporters in Smith County concede.
Burglarize a home in Tyler and jurors will "sock it to you here," longtime Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith reminded. But when it comes to more jail space to house suspects, three proposals since 2006 have failed with 63, 86 and 68 percent of the vote.
Five nights a week, jail vans leave Tyler to deliver inmates to neighboring counties or haul them back for court appearances. Smith said $12 million has been spent since 2004 leasing outside beds; 151 inmates from Smith County were locked up elsewhere in East Texas as of Monday.
Crunch the numbers for yourself. As of October 1, Smith County's jail had a capacity of 755 but only housed 675 people. Of those, 47 weren't actually county inmates but were being held on contract for some other entity (probably the feds) for a fee. So on October 1, there were 628 county inmates in the jail, and another 107 housed in other counties. That means Smith County's current "demand" is 735 total county inmates and it has a jail designed for 755.
Just a few more tweaks and funding for new diversion programs would easily reduce that number to something more manageable. El Paso, for example, reduced the time defendants wait in jail pretrial by 18 days by introducing a direct filing system. Tyler's police department and the Sheriff have refused to let officers use new authority given by the Legislature to give summons instead of arresting petty misdemeanants. And Judge Kent has proposed a litany of jail diversion proposals, of which the commissioners court only chose to back one.
That program's success is what's lowered Smith County's numbers to where they are, and if they'd enact the veteran judge's other ideas, I've little doubt the overcrowding problems would be completely alleviated for the time being. If a new jail were to pass, I think that'd be the last we'd hear about alternatives from the commissioners court, so I welcome the prediction that economic bad times might spook voters into rejecting the jail, again.
Perhaps after voters reject the Smith County Commissioners fourth jail proposal in three years, they'll finally get serious about incarceration alternatives instead of merely dabbling with the idea while they plot to double their jail capacity.
RELATED: See recent coverage from the Tyler Morning Telegraph:
- Public to decide fate of $59.6 million jail proposal
- Bond endorsed by Master Plan Resource Committee
- Judge Cynthia Kent: No New Jail
- Letter from proponents: Bonds worthy of support
- Jail bond opposition group reports higher contributions than pro-jail group
- Tyler Chamber of Commerce endorses $59.6 million jail bond plan
- Commissioners, judges, discuss courthouse plans, possible bond
- New Jail the Answer?