Overcrowding at the Nueces County Jail has forced the sheriff to take court-ordered measures to reduce the population which may include releasing nonviolent inmates and refusing to accept federal prisoners.
Sheriff Jim Kaelin emailed county commissioners and county court-at-law and district judges to notify them that a federal court order related to reducing the jail’s population will go into effect.
State standards require jails remain below 90 percent capacity. The email didn’t specify how much of that figure the jail has exceeded.The Sheriff claimed that the 689 federal inmates housed on contract, mostly at a private wing of the jail, weren't the cause of overcrowding, and instead blamed more police arrests of low-level offenders and judges failing to move their dockets along in a timely fashion:
County Judge Loyd Neal said he met with Kaelin on Tuesday and expects the sheriff to begin taking necessary steps Wednesday to lower the number of inmates.
“He certainly has some latitude to do it,” Neal said. “It’s a serious problem.”
He said one of the factors that may have contributed to the overcrowding was the number of arrests Corpus Christi police have made during the past couple of weekends.While I certainly agree decisions by police and judges play a big role, it's absurd to say the federal inmates don't contribute to the problem since they're taking up space that could otherwise be used for local prisoners. The truth, instead, is that federal contracts are the proximate cause of overcrowding - the county has contracted to house federal inmates and now must release local prisoners to fulfill those obligations. Rather than reduce numbers of federal inmates, the Sheriff may decide to "refuse to accept any person arrested for nonviolent misdemeanors or felonies; arrange for scheduled reporting for people jailed for civil or criminal contempt; find alternative facilities to house inmates [or] move inmates in protective custody to other facilities."
That coupled with other factors such as the Memorial Day holiday and some courts Tuesday not in session didn’t help matters.
Nueces has already built a large privately run jail in Robstown for speculative profit making in addition to the main county facility, but now they don't have enough space for their own prisoners. Nueces' population grew by just 3% in the last decade, and crime rates overall have declined, so it's not population growth that's causing overcrowding but decisions by local officials to incarcerate more frequently and to fill beds with contract prisoners.
In any event, the following day, says the Caller Times ("Nueces County jail population in compliance; state inspectors make a visit," June 1), Nueces County began releasing petty offenders to get into compliance as state inspectors arrived on a surprise visit:
Kaelin said jail officials on Tuesday pulled together a list of inmates eligible to be released. About 20 were released the same day to help bring jail capacity back within state standards, which say jails can't be at more than 90 percent capacity.
Those released were:
About eight inmates on time served for good behavior on nonviolent misdemeanors — mostly homeless people who had been jailed for criminal trespassing.
Six inmates jailed only on technical parole violations were released after jail officials notified their parole officers.
Six jailed for civil contempt for not paying child support. They could return once space is available, he said.
Kaelin also could have undertaken other measures including refusing to accept federal prisoners and people arrested for nonviolent offenses or finding alternative facilities to house inmates.The truth is most of those folks likely shouldn't have been in jail, anyway. Criminal Trespass is a B misdemeanor and holding defendants - even homeless people - for significant pretrial periods amounts to punishing them pre-conviction. And those jailed for non-payment of child support, clearly, can't earn money to pay it while locked up. How much sense does that make? (Day reporting and strong probation are a much more effective option for that group.)
Regular readers know that the Sheriff alone can't control jail crowding, though he administers the jail. Instead decision by police, prosecutors, and judges - particularly regarding excessive pretrial detention - are the main drivers. The County Judge told a local TV station that "We have to have great cooperation from the judges, both district and county court judges, the DAs office, and our magistrate and everyone working together," but that doesn't jibe with DA Mark Skurka's comment to the local paper that “The (District Attorney’s) office is not in charge of housing prisoners.” In other words, he considers it somebody else's problem, even though his own office's decisions have a direct impact on the situation. Typical.
It's also notable that the Sheriff chose to keep federal prisoners the jail is housing on contract and release prisoners sent there by locals - that's because federal prisoners generate revenue while local offenders represent nothing but cost for the county. The jail's function as a revenue generator, at this point, appears to outweigh its primary public safety functions.
Meanwhile Liberty County, which as of May 1 was at 95.16% of capacity according to the Commission on Jail Standards, and the Cleveland (TX) Advocate reports ("County officials to reduce jail expenses by releasing non-violent offenders," May 28) that local officials:
will attempt to reduce the expenses of housing inmates in jail by putting non-violent offenders on probation instead of jail.
The concept is being formulated and put into action by local judges and commissioners court, according to County Judge Craig McNair.
He explained that he has been in discussion with 253rd State District Judge Chap Cain and County Court-at-Law Judge Tommy Chambers to finalize the details.
“The idea is to get our jail population down,” said McNair. “We would rather have people released to go back to work instead of sitting in jail.”
The plan calls for hiring a director of adult probation who will be stationed at the Liberty County Jail, according to McNair. The person will monitor the jail intake traffic, reviewing each person arrested and determine if they would be better off released on a personal recognizance bond instead of sitting in jail.
McNair said that the ideal candidates for the bonds would be first-time, non-violent offenders. Each inmate would be evaluated by the probation director on a case-by-case basis to determine eligibility.Notably, though, as in Nueces, the goal isn't just cost savings but also to "make room in the county jail for federal inmates, which would generate revenue for the county from the federal government." So in both these instances, local officials are releasing prisoners sent there by the local constabulary in order to lease out beds to the federal government, which pays higher rates for prisoners than other potential customers.
Placing the non-violent or first-time offenders on probation instead of leaving them in jail will allow them to return to work and pay their fines quicker. McNair said that one of the goals is to transition those who are arrested into productive citizens as quickly as possible.
The program is also expected to save the county anywhere from $800,000 to $1 million a year by reducing jail expenses.
This is what happens when the jail-for-profit mentality overtakes a county. Liberty has a contract with a private company to operate its jail, and that contractor must be paid. So slowly but surely, housing inmates for pay becomes the bigger priority. Liberty County's whole economy, in fact, is today based on incarceration, with four TDCJ units in the county including one privately run facility. Crime rates in Liberty County actually increased somewhat over the last decade, though population growth lagged far behind urban areas of the state. But increased crime is less the cause of Liberty jail overcrowding than, as in Nueces, decisions by local judges and prosecutors and, even more critically, 114 contract prisoners (as of May 1) who take up around 1/3 of the jail's capacity.
In both instances, I'd expect local officials to soon begin calling for new jail construction, but both counties really have plenty of jail space. They've just chosen to treat their jails as profit centers, even if it means turning away or releasing local offenders. I find that dynamic remarkable and in the current environment (with a glut of private beds on the market), irresponsible. According to the most recent data (pdf) from the Commission on Jail Standards, around 15% of county jail prisoners statewide are being held on contract from other jurisdictions.
That said, since IMO most county jails are incarcerating folks that really needn't be there as long as they're housed, I don't expect these releases to impact public safety, just like Gregg County saw no crime spike a few years back when it stopped arresting low-level offenders to keep contract beds online after Hurricane Rita. But the stories do show how easily the profit motive can displace public safety when counties decide to compete with private prison companies instead of spending scarce tax dollars to take care of their own public safety needs.
RELATED: See a recent New York Times story titled "Private Prisons Found to Offer Little in Savings."