Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Learning from others' mistakes: Solutions to jail overcrowding in Los Angeles

With California state prisons sending offenders back to counties to serve their time, the Golden State's largest jails - especially in Los Angeles - face a near-epic task of reducing incarceration levels to make room for more serious offenders. The Vera Institute has published a lengthy, detailed new report suggesting a variety of approaches, many of which will be familiar to Grits readers, most of which transfer quite well to jails in other large jurisdictions. From the executive summary (pdf):
Vera’s analysis has identified many points at which changes, big and small, could produce a measureable impact on the daily population of the jail. The analysis affirms that there is no one part of the system that owns the problem or the solution. Every agency—from law enforcement through the Probation Department—is touched by these findings and recommendations. The primary goals of the recommendations are:

1. To enable more defendants to be assessed and released at the earliest possible point with the support and supervision they may need to remain safely in the community and return to court as directed.
2. To keep people who come into contact with law enforcement because of mental illness, intoxication, or homelessness from becoming unnecessarily enmeshed in the criminal justice system.
3. To understand and improve the current system of probation supervision, violation, and revocation.
4. To improve the flow of communication and documents between agencies to expedite the processing of people and cases.
5. To highlight the need for everyone involved in the movement of cases to work for a just disposition at the earliest point.
6. To improve the efforts of every agency to maintain a data-keeping system that enhances both administrative efficiency and system-wide policymaking.
7. To improve the fair and efficient administration of justice at all points of the system, which can, in turn, reduce jail crowding.
Many observations in the report almost certainly apply in most Texas jails. For example: "In L.A. County, most detention decisions are not based on an informed assessment of whether an individual poses a danger to society or is likely to return to court. Instead, the decision is based on whether the arrestee has enough money to meet bail." The same could be said for most Texas counties.

Los Angeles County under-utilizes its pretrial services division, says the report, with most cases left to commercial bail bondsmen. Vera says this boosts failure to appear (FTA) rates because offenders not supervised by pretrial services don't receive adequate reminders to come to court. In many cases these were for petty offenses: "Vera staff observed arraignments for people who spent one or two nights in jail for FTA on charges of not paying a $1.50 metro fare." It costs $95-$140 per day to keep them locked up.

As in many Texas jurisdictions, police do not utilize "cite and release" authority as often as they could, and thousands are arrested for public intoxication are released hours after booking, wasting valuable resources.

One interesting suggestion was to "Create triage centers for patrol officers to bring people whose main reason for contact with law enforcement is being drunk, disorderly, or demonstrating signs of mental illness to allow evaluation, time to sober up or detox, or contact family without an immediate, and possibly unnecessary, booking into the jail."

Another problem is that plea bargains "tend to take place toward the very end of the process rather than at the beginning," boosting pretrial detention rates. The report includes several suggestions for processing cases more rapidly.

On the mental health front, "defendants receiving competency treatment are in custody much longer than if they were convicted of the charged offenses."  Vera suggests expanding "capacity to evaluate defendants with mental illness and place them in appropriate community-based treatment facilities."

In general, most larger Texas counties face virtually identical (if not as extreme) problems to those described in this document, and at least some of the recommendations would apply in every jurisdiction. Counties face these problems in an atomic, isolated environment, even though the same problems recur in other jurisdictions, meaning when solutions are identified in one place they usually don't translate to the next jail down the road. As is often the case in life, it's wiser whenever possible to learn from others' mistakes.


Arce said...

This is all assuming that the edifice complex that afflicts Sheriffs and County Courts, with the assistance of the jail construction and finance industry, does not succeed in blocking the reforms that are needed.

If you are looking for corruption, check out the counties that have built jails, especially those to be operated by a private contractor.

Anonymous said...

I’m at a total loss as to how Los Angeles or any other city in California finds themselves financially able to contract with the Vera Institute or any other think tank with their hand out ready and willing to get paid for their (research).

And their findings, (California needs to spend a lot more money).

Such valuable (and I mean that in every sense of the word), advice may prove hard to swallow since the whole State is bankrupt.

When all is said and done the underlying question is; are we trying to solve problems or create them; do we want more freedom or less freedom?

Do more people end up back in jail or less people end up back in jail once their criminal case has been disposed and they are placed on probation or parole or while their case is pending and they are on whatever form of government intervention?

We have pretrial (presumed innocent people) and post-conviction (now guilty people) that must succumb to drug testing, scheduled appointments that (must) be kept, classes, monitoring through monitoring devices, all kinds of fees that (must) be paid, employment requirements, education requirements, living and placement requirements, court appearances, and on and on and on, it’s amazing that anyone makes it through the system.

Do we really want the government to take on the role of overseeing behavior and in the end is it really beneficial to society?

What happened to the presumption of innocents?

What happened to “you’re on probation so don’t get in any trouble.”

Lower the bond requirements, let presumed innocent people alone with the only requirement being to show up in court to defend yourself, and let the punishment stand, either go to jail or be allowed to stay out and don’t get in any more trouble.

The micro management of criminal justice seems to be more about protecting an expensive government bureaucracy that has become too big to fail than protecting citizens.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:21, two things: First, jails cost so much that paying to develop a plan to reduce overcrowding pays for itself many times over if even a fraction of their advice is followed.

Second, with the exception of advocating more community-based mental health services, their findings aren't that LA should spend a lot more money but in fact they suggest ways to SAVE money, which makes their advice more "valuable," even, than you suppose.

I pretty much agree with the rest of your commentary.

Anonymous said...

Just a couple of comments.

Private sector operators of county jails will either raise their cost per bed rates as the population shrinks in small to medium size jails and/or responses to RFPs will be less frequent or with through the roof rates to account for smaller populations.

The effectiveness of reducing jail populations assumes cooperation and coordination between all parties involved. It has been my experience that a meshing of gears is always hampered by turf wars, politics, secrecy and the old "dont tell me how to run my operation". Without some form of penalty for not being part of the solution, these barriers will most likely continue. Currently, monetary penalties are only placed on Community Supervision Departments due to TDCJ-CJAD (the State) controlling the purse strings of CSCDs.

Anonymous said...

And speaking of private correctional facilities, what about Littlefield, Texas? Where the citizens now get to pay for the facility after failing to meet bond payments and an auction of the property? Wonder if graft/greed had any involvement?

Anonymous said...

To address thing one and thing two which actually sums up quite well how I feel (I could not possibly have said it better) about our government spending money on think tanks which derive their non-profit status and income from good old fashioned crony capitalism; they go about the business of conjuring up chaos only they never clean things up and they never leave. They come back again and again to help clean things up and turn a simple bathtub ring into one big giant mess and then leave it that way and go about the business of making even more messes.
What should be fundamental and paramount in this instance is the presumption of innocents and the belief that those convicted desire a second chance if given half a chance.
The Vera Institute set out to protect the indigent from being unfairly treated by conducting studies to prove that the poor should be allowed bail without financial guarantee based solely on their strong community ties as being enough to sufficiently guarantee court appearance. Thus they should not be incarcerated unjustly and not be afforded the same justice as those with sufficient financial means.
Ironically those effected most by their studies and suggestion are the indigent who are still the least likely to be given bail and are the least likely to be able to conform to their behavioral monitoring methods resulting in continued and reoccurring incarceration.
Thing one is too much and thing two doesn’t save money or fix problems, this isn’t rocket science, anyone in jail for more than 30 days that hasn’t been charged with a violent crime needs to be released. Bail should be lowered automatically each week for all other crimes until it is finally set at $1000.00 and if the defendant can’t get out of jail within 24 hours of the final bail reduction then automatic release kicks in.
Jail overcrowding isn’t going to go away so let private enterprise take on as much burden as possible the majority of people will seek bail as soon as possible and for those that must be released automatically place them in the monitoring category and leave everybody else alone.
This relieves the burden of bail decisions by Judges who are then scapegoats to scrutiny.
It places the burden on private enterprise that must perform or go out of business.
It lowers the cost and responsibility of the tax payer.
And, it lowers the jail population, (shazam).