State trends are leaning less toward brick-and-mortar jails to solve inmate overcrowding, but local officials are confident the county’s new detention center will eventually reach capacity, with or without programs to divert low-level offenders out of the system.This news comes at a time when McLennan County's speculative new jail built to house out-of-county prisoners can't find contracts sufficient to pay back its taxpayer guaranteed debt:
County administrations around the state are seeking new alternatives, such as pretrial diversion services, to keep inmate populations down, reducing the strain on jails and shipping fewer prisoners to neighboring facilities, state officials said.
McLennan County’s recently opened 816-bed Jack Harwell Detention Center partially relies on taking inmates from outside counties to generate revenue and pay off the $49 million bond used to construct the facility. But despite having contracts with at least two large counties to accept outside inmates, the center has not reached more than 50 percent capacity since its opening in June.Coryell County, which has been sending overflow inmates to McLennan, has instituted a Supervised Pretrial Services program to identify inmates who should be eligible for personal bonds. "During the program’s pilot period from May 31 through July 31, the county was able release 17 eligible defendants, saving more than $25,000 per month, according to a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The program cost about $150 per week to implement, the report stated." The Trib reports that "About half of the Coryell County Jail pretrial inmates qualify as indigent." It's also interesting to learn that Coryell's use of pretrial supervision was specifically a reaction to the need to raise taxes to expand the jail: "Coryell County has been considering constructing a new, larger jail to alleviate the overcrowding, but residents may balk at raising taxes to fund the venture, said Coryell County Sheriff’s Lt. Kenneth Green."
According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the center reported Nov. 1 that only 39 percent of its beds were in use.
McLenan County, says the Trib, "has never had a large-scale pretrial diversion services program." And I'm guessing they won't anytime soon, since if they don't maximize the number of inmates in their new, privately run jail the whole thing becomes a "doomsday deal." What a mess.
One interesting if somewhat tangential tidbit at the end of the story relates to the Legislature's penchant for creating new crimes and increasing criminal penalties:
although the detention center is still low on inmates, which could create problems in paying back the facility’s construction bond, Lewis expressed a different fear as the 82nd Texas Legislature prepares to convene.
He’s worried the Legislature could approve new criminal penalty enhancements, either by increasing the minimum sentencing terms for state jail felonies, or by classifying more offenses as felonies.
“Actually, what I’m afraid of is a jail backlog,” he said.I disagree with Lewis about the jail, but I'm as discouraged as he sounds about the Legislature's fetish with boosting criminal penalties every two years.
Interestingly, according to another Trib story, Harris County has been keeping overflow inmates in the McLennan jail since May but as of last week had yet to pay anything. "County Auditor Steve Moore said Harris County owes about $324,000 in housing costs incurred from June to October." Harris County Sheriff spokesman Alan Bernstein told the paper "a series of mishaps delayed the county in processing the payment," which he said was in the mail.
- While we're on the subject of pretrial services, the Austin Statesman this weekend had an informative little article (with no particular newshook that I can identify) describing the workings of Travis County's much-more well developed pretrial detention program.
- See also a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust on jail overcrowding and pretrial detention titled "Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Cost" (pdf)