Travis County has seen a dramatic drop in its jail population, following a national trend showing local jail populations dropping over the last year for the first time in more than a decade, according to stats released last week by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Overall, the BJS reports, the local jail population nationwide was down 2.3%, for a total of 767,620 inmates held as of midyear 2009. Since 2000, the jail population has increased by about 3% each year.
From mid-2007 to 2009, Austin's local jail population declined a whopping 16.7%. As of last summer, the average daily jail population was down to 2,459 inmates, and the county's jail occupancy rate declined to 82% last year – no small feat for a county jail system that has struggled in the past with overcrowding.
Why the decrease? Likely a combination of factors, says Travis County Sheriff's Office spokesman Roger Wade. Local jail diversion programs have played a part, as has the Texas Department of Criminal Justice moving more quickly to transfer prisoners from county jail to state prison after sentences have been meted out. "All that combined to help reduce the population," says Wade.
The Bureau of Justice Statistics report (pdf) Smith mentions truly is an astonishing landmark, though it's too soon to tell if the trend it describes might persist long-term. BJS reports that that the United States last year witnessed its "first decline in the U.S. jail population since BJS implemented the Annual Survey of Jails in 1982," which basically coincides with (or follows by just a few years) the beginning of the mass-incarceration era. Overall, US jail populations are down 17,936 inmates from just a year ago, with almost all of the decline coming among the largest jails with 1,000 inmates or more. That's no small turnaround.
There's still no shortage, though, of warm bodies entering jails. Reports BJS, "Local jails admitted an estimated 12.8 million persons during the 12 months ending June 30, 2009, or about 17 times the size of the inmate population (767,620)."
Six of the 50 largest county jails in America are in Texas, according to BJS. Harris County (Houston) has the third largest jail population in the United States after Los Angeles and New York City. Dallas' jail is 9th largest; Bexar, 18th; Tarrant, 24th; Travis, 41st; El Paso, 50th.
And speaking of empty jail cells, the latest news out of Houston lets us know that Texas counties that speculatively overbuilt their jails hoping to rent out extra space can't count on Harris County to cover their bad bets. The Chronicle's Chris Moran reported yesterday that:
A potential criminal justice price war could benefit local taxpayers as counties across Texas look to fill empty jail cells and at least two members of Commissioners Court look for a better deal to lock up Harris County's inmate overflow.
As it stands, Texas counties are getting most of Harris County's overflow jail business even though there are cheaper cells for rent out of state. ...
A recent jail construction spree in Texas and not enough inmates to fill them has prompted counties to come asking for a piece of the $17 million Harris County spent last fiscal year to rent jail space. Harris County rents jail beds in three other Texas counties, but has contracts with seven.
County Judge Ed Emmett said he received a call from Newton County's judge months ago asking him to send more.
[County Commissioner Steve] Radack held up the renewal of the contract to rent as many as 872 jail beds in Newton County at a cost of $6.5 million through next February because he wants to make sure Harris County is taking full advantage of the buyer's market.
He asked why the county does not use a bidding process similar to that used for road contracts — advertise what the county is looking for and hire whomever delivers it at the lowest price.
The county budget officer made the most important point in the story, however, and it represents a changing attitude among Harris County officials: “The main thing is to get out of this business of having anybody in another jail,” [Dick] Raycraft said, by reducing local jail overcrowding through reforms such as diverting the mentally ill to treatment instead of incarceration." It's great to hear that because Harris County's jail overcrowding problems are largely volitional - something elected officials have chosen by policy, not an organic result of rising crime. Moran notes that the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) "has applied for state funding to start a public defender office, and its committees are exploring the use of ankle monitors for home confinement, diversion of the mentally ill to treatment instead of jail and other initiatives."
I opposed new jail building in the past in Houston because I believed, and still believe, that elected officials in that town (particularly local judges and the commissioners court) would never confront the real, underlying causes of overincarceration if they aren't forced to by situational economics. That appears to be finally starting to happen, thank heavens (though so far solutions proposed by the CJCC have remained pretty timid). As Winston Churchill famously said of Americans generally, Harris County officials can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else.