Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tactics to reduce Nueces County jail crowding not so different from elsewhere

The Corpus Christi Caller Times this week editorialized ("Jail population reduction should be a priority," Dec. 8) that Nueces County officials should focus more closely on reducing the jail population to avoid new jail construction:

Over the past 17 years, only 36 beds have been added to the county jail, while its inmate population has expanded by 14 percent since 2000. A larger jail is needed, [Sheriff] Kaelin says. He may be correct. But even if the county could come up with the money to build one, we’re not so sure a new jail would solve the problem. Here’s why:

In 2006, after failing federal inspections the jail lost the federal prisoners that had brought in hefty revenues for the county. Amazingly, it took only six months for the jail to return to 90 percent of capacity. That’s an indication of a systemic problem.

Why is the jail perpetually so crowded? Kaelin blames new laws and expanding police forces, but other counties deal with the same state laws and somehow have much lower jail inmate populations. Is Corpus Christi’s police force that much more effective? Or as County Judge Loyd Neal commented, is it just that “we’ve got a lot of bad people”? ...

High inmate populations are costly, both in the risks of violence and in the cost of housing inmates elsewhere. We urge Nueces County officials and the state of Texas to make reduction of jail populations a priority, both to save on jail costs and to help inmates turn their lives around.

The commentary which follows may perhaps seem repetitive, but if so it's only because counties across the state face the same problems with jail overcrowding, usually stemming from the same causes and with the same, basic array of possible solutions available to them. The question is whether various local officials use the tools available to them.

Let me save Nueces taxpayers $20,000 in consulting fees and lay out what needs to be done to reduce jail overcrowding. The key players are the arresting agencies, the criminal court judges (felony and misdemeanor), the probation department (controlled by the judges), the District Attorney, and the county commissioners court (which holds all the purse strings). What can be done? The problem won't be solved by any one actor but only if multiple players chip in and do their part. Here are the main, topline possibilities:

Arresting agencies: Corpus Christi PD and the Nueces County Sheriff should reduce jail intake for petty offenders by authorizing officers to exercise discretion granted them by the 79th Texas Legislature to give citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors.

Judges: Criminal court judges can help by reducing pretrial detention through lowered bail or personal bonds, processing cases more quickly, and utilizing progressive sanctions for probationers, especially misdemeanants, instead of revoking them automatically to jail. Judges also must identify evidence-based programs that would be useful for folks in their court and communicate to the commissioners court what programming needs to be funded, whether for mental health services, juvenile programming, day-reporting alternatives, etc.. Then they must utilize those tools once they exist.

Probation department: Controlled by the judges who act as its board, Nueces' probation department is one of just three out of Texas' ten largest counties to see probation revocations increase after receiving funding to engage in diversion efforts. (In Bexar County, a recent analysis found that higher revocation rates are contributing to jail overcrowding, and it won't surprise me if that's also the case for Nueces.) The Caller Times editorial said Texas should "develop its own programs" on jail diversion, but it actually already has: The problem is the Nueces probation department hasn't been fully taking advantage of the tools and resources available to them. Probation officers should be trained in evidence-based practices and supervisors should be held accountable for using them.

District Attorney: A big key to processing cases more rapidly is for prosecutors to assess cases brought by officers as early in the process as possible, not after a defendant has been sitting in jail for hours, days or (worst case) even weeks. After all, why jail people who you're not going to charge? Harris and El Paso's DA's have implemented "direct filing" systems that get prosecutors involved much earlier in the process. In Harris County, police must get every arrests pre-approved by prosecutors who are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days per year to evaluate cases. (See Murray Newman's description of Harris' system here and here.) Getting prosecutors involved earlier is one of the smartest approaches I've heard to adding a little giddyup to the system. It solves or prevents a lot of other problems.

Commissioners Court: Should fund programs with an eye toward jail diversion and minimizing the jail population. When judges ask for funding for a DWI court, day reporting center or some other diversion-focused tactic, commissioners must keep in mind that such costs will save money in the big picture by taking pressure off the jail, which is the 800-pound gorilla in the county corrections budget. Discourage further schemes to profiteer off jail-bed space and focus on the county's core, carceral needs. And just say no to new jail construction until the day comes that everybody above is doing their part and it's still not enough.

These aren't the only ways to address the problem, but some or all of them will need to be part of the mix to avoid unnecessary new jail building. Because county jail overcrowding involves so many different actors and moving parts, there's often a temptation to throw up one's hands and declare that new jail building and more taxpayer debt are the only possible solutions. But if county leaders each focus on the piece of the puzzle that's actually within their purview, these are not at the end of the day insurmountable problems.

RELATED: From the Caller-Times, "Medical care too costly at county jail."


FairPlay said...


The suggestions you make seem to be a common sense approach to jail overcrowding in a county that size. I have always wondered why all parts of the system do not work together to solve jail overcrowding problems.

It appears to me that elected officials must believe that if they take the steps you are suggesting that they will appear to be "soft on crime." There has to be a common reason that many officials to not take common sense approach to these issues

Sometimes I wonder if there are some court officials that try to create artifically high case loads in order to justify their existence. Especially since most misdemeanor cases are plea bargined, it seems that it unreasonable for a court take months before the average misdemeanor case can be disposed.

I definately think that courts should be mandated to process cases more quickly, if the accused is sitting in jail and unable to bond out of jail.

Anonymous said...

Citations for misdemeanors are a great idea. The problem is that the offender still has to electronically submit their fingerprints so the criminal history tracking forms get generated. Most counties maintain their fingerprint machines at the jail, so it means the offender will have to go to jail at some point in the process.

To avoid this (which is the whole point of the law), the lege needs to appropriate funds for fingerprint machines in courthouses, too. I'm told they run around $25,000 a pop.

Alex S. said...

For sure their misdemeanor section needs some fine tuning. I had a client in jail for violation of a protective order in Nueces and he couldn't make bond. I called to set a court date and the court said no case was filed so I called the district attorney's office whose secretary also advised the case hadn't been filed yet. It ultimately took them about 30 days to file the case. It was very flabbergasting.