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.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.
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.
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.