Sunday, July 18, 2010

Smith County Commissioners may bypass voters on new jail debt

Figuring three strikes and you're out on voter-approved jail bonds, the Smith County commissioners court is considering issuing "certificates of obligation" (non-voter approved debt) to expand the jail in my hometown, albeit a smaller expansion than previously proposed. Reports the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("New jail plan would bypass voters," July 14):
Commissioner Jeff Warr has prepared a $33 million, 385-bed jail renovation and expansion project to be unveiled at a 3 p.m. special meeting Tuesday.

For months, Warr worked to produce a plan that he believed would relieve jail overcrowding, reduce costs and safety concerns, increase efficiency and meet state requirements. The plans received the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ approval last week, and he informed the court he would make a presentation for their consideration next week.

During that time he also has contemplated how to pay for it. He admits that he “may be run out of town on a rail” by merely mentioning taking on debt without taxpayer approval.

But, Warr said he doesn’t care and added he is willing to fall on the political sword because, as a businessman, he believes it would be the right thing to do.

“The thing is, I am going to get criticism because people think I want to build a jail. I don’t want to build a jail, but I can’t go to bed without putting every option out there to stop wasting (taxpayers’) money,” he said. “We’re wasting their money.”

The county has shipped prisoners to as many as eight surrounding counties since 2004 to stay in compliance with state jail population standards. The county has spent more than $15 million housing prisoners out-of-county since it began.

More than $2.3 million was budgeted for out-of-county, shipping, medical and housing this year.

In the last four years, voters have rejected multiple jail proposals. Warr describes the situation in simple terms — either the county can become a landlord or remain a tenant.
I'll give them this: They've scaled back the proposal considerably from the original nine-figure "Taj Majal" version Sheriff J.B. Smith and County Judge Joel Baker had wanted. In the scheme of things, though, between construction and staffing, an expanded jail will cost at least as much as housing inmates elsewhere. Staffing 385 extra beds 24-7 at the TCJS minimum standard of one guard per 48 inmates would require filling 40+ guard slots - let's say, arguendo, that costs $1.2 million. Add to that the annual costs for financing - at 3%, interest alone on $33,000,000 in debt comes to $990,000, plus whatever you're paying on principal - and the costs of jail building vs. housing inmates in surplus beds in other counties comes out a financial wash, at least for now.

Before passing judgment, I'm more interested to see the non-construction details, if there are any, of Warr's plan to "relieve jail overcrowding, reduce costs and safety concerns, increase efficiency and meet state requirements."  If he's suggesting jail building as the only solution, the strategy has already failed. Smith County judges can and will easily fill up as many bed spaces as the commissioners court provides.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards publishes a monthly comparison of county-by-county incarceration rates, and Smith County is the largest of all counties that have incarceration rates in the local jail above 4 per 1,000 residents. The Smith County Jail incarcerates 4.26 residents per 1,000. Compare that, for example, to 3.73 in McLennan (Waco), 3.66 in Lubbock, 3.14 in Brazos (Bryan/College Station), 2.96 in Angelina (Lufkin), and 2.36 in Midland. El Paso residents are less than half as likely to be locked up in the local jail (2.09 per 1,000) than in Tyler. Smith County's jail overcrowding problem stems primarily from policy decisions by elected officials, particularly judges regarding pretrial detention, not because otherwise the city would be ravaged by crime.

Building more jail space by itself cannot resolve the problem that Smith County incarcerates way too many folks in its jail for a county of 200,000. That's going to require changing either the decisions or the occupants of the local judiciary and DA's office and leadership among law enforcement agencies. As we've discussed on this blog many times, there are plenty of options for reducing overcrowding - including some proposed by longtime District Judge Cynthia Kent - that would be a much smarter way to invest additional money if taxpayers are going to be asked to spend it.

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Staffing 385 extra beds 24-7 at the TCJS minimum standard of one guard per 48 inmates would require filling 40+ guard slots - let's say, arguendo, that costs $1.2 million."

I know your being conservative with that figure. When you also consider additional new employee costs like medical insurance, fica, social security, retirement. vacations, overtime, unemployment, workers compensation, revolving door(constant jail employee turnover) costs for background investigations of employees, required physicals, drug screening and psychological evaluations, and new jailer training for basic licensing, additional building insurance, public utilities, televisions, recreation equipment and on and on, the costs go well beyond 1.2 million.

Anonymous said...

JB needs some money to finance his retirement.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting that they should continue to pursue this when they cry about a $5 million budget shortfall. Judge Baker cried, "Maybe I should have approved a (property) tax rate increase last year in hindsight." Of course, that was right before his re-election. I'm sure they will cry about the budget shortfall, get the tax rate increase because they "have to" and easily tack on the increase for the jail while they're at it. Shhhh! Nobody will ever know!

Anonymous said...

There isn't anyone elected to expand the jail for the judges....they all ran AGAINST this kind of thing. Warr was careful to comment on how "courageous" he was being by even bring it up.

Anonymous said...

11:23 - It doesn't matter what they ran on. Smith County is controlled by a corrupt politcal machine. Jack Skeen and JB Smith are at the top of that machine. Anyone who wants to remain in an elected position in Smith County must do what they are told. (Anybody wonder why Joel Baker got appointed to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct a while back? It was to protect Skeen because complaints had been filed against him.)

The jail isn't about being tough on crime or protecting the citizens from dangerous criminals. It is about expanding the kingdom controlled by this corrupt political machine. Its all about power.

Smith County could solve the jail overcrowding problem by setting reasonable bonds, stop incarcerating people for Class Cs, and utilizing the discretion now authorized by law to ticket and release some Class Bs.

But, the political machine doesn't want to reduce the number of people they have control over. THey want control over more and more. If the citizens let them have a bigger jail, it won't be long before they'll be out of space again.

Someone once said that if you live in Smith County and havent' been arrested, its just because they haven't gotten around to you yet.

Anonymous said...

"Smith County could solve the jail overcrowding problem by setting reasonable bonds, stop incarcerating people for Class Cs, and utilizing the discretion now authorized by law to ticket and release some Class Bs."

That would be a good question for a Smith County resident to ask the sheriff and commissioner's court as to why they are not doing it.

Anonymous said...

Smith Count judges also have a tendency to jail people for class C as well

Anonymous said...

Monday, July 19, 2010
By DIANNE SOLÍS/ The Dallas Morning News

More than 100 arrested during five-day Dallas-Fort Worth gang raid.

There we go again with overcrowding.

Anonymous said...

The current jail is just a little over 30 years old. Its in pitiful shape. I wonder where all the money that was supposed to be spent maintaining it went. Maybe it went the same place that million dollars in surplus property went. These people can't even account for property given to them by the government. Do you really think they can be trusted with $33 million.

R. Shackleford said...

Bunch of crooks running Smith county. I bet Wilco and Smith politicos meet at the same titty bar every month to compare notes, swap civil liberties violation stories, and think up new ways to screw John Q. Public out of his hard earned money.