The Tyler Tea Party, Inc. has reviewed the latest jail plan released by the Smith County Commissioners Court and after reviewing the documentation the Tyler Tea Party believes that the voters should vote AGAINST in the election to be held on May 14, 2011.Their math is correct that leasing out 41 beds from a neighboring county is cheaper than building a new jail. And regular readers know that any promises of revenues from leasing beds should be disregarded as naive foolishness. Quite remarkably, my hometown voters have now rejected four proposals in three different elections since 2006 to approve new debt for jail expansion. This fifth version is radically scaled down from the others, but would still require a tax increase. In the short term, with jail populations declining and untapped alternatives for jail diversion available to local police and judges, Smith County voters are absolutely rational to reject an expensive jail expansion based purely on a cost-benefit analysis.
The Tyler Tea Party, Inc. opposes the bond election for several reasons including a lack of transparency, timing and issues regarding the arguments used to support the plan.
On the issue of transparency, this plan fails on all fronts. This is the fifth jail proposal developed by the Smith County Commissioners Court. The court has released the least amount of supporting documentation for this plan. On the County's website, the Commissioners have released a power point presentation that is long on promise but short on details. The lack of supporting documentation, weighs against supporting the plan.
On the issue of timing, the most recent jail plan could not come at a worse time. The economy right now is terrible. The Tyler Independent School District just had a school bond election fail and talking about laying off employees. Tyler Junior College is discussing how to fund its expected short fall. Now the County is asking the voters to support a new jail even though the voters just voted against more schools. The timing of the bond election also weighs against supporting it. Additionally, in January of this year, the county was shipping only 41 defendants to other counties. This was one of the lowest numbers in years. Additionally, at this time there is a bill pending before the Texas Legislature that would allow Counties to have tent jails. These issues related to timing also weigh against supporting the plan.
Finally, the arguments being used to support the bond package are contradictory and rely heavily on assumptions that require the Commissioners Court to realize savings which they have never been able to realize in the past. The primary argument made by the Commissioners to support the bond proposal is that the County has already spent 16 million dollars in housing inmates in other counties. The Commissioners seem to be hinting that these funds could have been spent on constructing a new jail. However, this is not true. By voting no in the last 4 or 5 jail bond elections, the County has actually SAVED money by voting no. Additionally, by voting no to this bond election the County will save money. Further, the County has acknowledged spending $41.00 a day in housing inmates in other counties is less than would be spent in Smith County if a bond election passed and a new jail built. Therefore, Smith County will actually be spending more money to house inmates here than other counties and on top of that the County would have to pay for the cost of construction. This is not a conservative approach in tough economic times. Further, some of the arguments currently made do not ring true. When this plan was first announced, the Commissioners Court stated that the plan would not address all of the County's needs and some inmates might still have to be shipped. However, more recently, the County has announced that it will be able to make substantial income from renting beds to other counties. Both of these statements cannot be true. Further, the history in Smith County is that every jail built was full the day it opened. Four years ago, the County said that it had to have a minimum of 1200 new beds. Two years ago, the County said that it had to have a minimum of around 600 new beds. Now the County says it needs around 300 new beds and can make substantial money renting them out to other counties. These inconsistencies also weigh against supporting the jail plan.
After reviewing the proposal and discussing it among the members of the Tyler Tea Party, Inc. we recommend that the voters of Smith County vote AGAINST the jail bond proposal. Early voting begins May 2, 2010. The election will be held on May 14, 2011.
While I realize all the local Tea Party groups are unrelated and postions taken by one may not translate to the next, it strikes me that the Texas Tea Party movement weighing in against jail construction could be nearly as important a development as the Right on Crime movement, and perhaps a related one. Until now, I haven't heard a lot of Tea Party activists turning their "less government" mantra onto the subject of jail building, police powers, etc., but judging from the Tea Party leaders I know personally, the potential is there. Certainly that's the case as long as the conversation is focused on runaway spending. In the Tyler Morning Telegraph (which never met a jail proposal its editors didn't like), a Tea Party spokesperson declared, "'We have federal spending at unthinkable levels, the state has a $25 billion shortfall and now the county comes along saying 'we want to tax a little more,' she said. 'When does it stop?'"
When, indeed? Consider: The United States has 5% of the world population and 25% of its prisoners, with Texas vying with Louisiana for the highest incarceration rate among the 50 states, meaning Texas has more or less the highest incarceration rate on the planet. Further, Smith County has among the highest local incarceration rates of any sizable Texas county. So if the Tea Party folks in Tyler - which is virtually a global spearpoint of the mass incarceration boom - begin consistently asking "When does it stop?" when they're asked for new money for jails and police, it could be a real game changer - certainly for criminal justice politics in Texas and perhaps even nationally. For once, politicians at least in my home county, seemingly can't placate their conservative flank with yet another dose of Incarcerex: