Wichita County Jail officials faced a big problem to start 2011 — concerning a record-setting number of inmates.
The large jail population — which reached a high of 653 in January — put a significant strain on staff and the county's budget to maintain the downtown and Sprague Annex jails.
That burden has been lifted somewhat recently through the efforts of several entities at the Wichita County Courthouse, according to Wichita County Sheriff David Duke.
"Our jail population has slowed down quite a bit, and it's an accumulation of several factors," Duke said. "A lower jail population means there's been a substantial savings to Wichita County. We've had an excess of more than $600,000 to $700,000 we're not using that we've been able to turn back in to the budget."
Population numbers in November have averaged about 420. That's a significant decrease from an average of about 613 in January.
That average has dropped steadily since February, though that's not due to a lack of law enforcement activity, Duke said. Daily book-ins have remained nearly the same throughout the year, hovering at about 24.
Instead, Duke credited several groups at the courthouse for the stretch of desirable population numbers.That's an impressive 31.5% reduction in the local jail population in less than a year. Not many other counties could make that claim. This example highlights how addressing jail crowding problems really requires cooperation across an array of entities from the police to the DA, the Sheriff, judges and even the defense bar - there are too many cooks in the kitchen, many of them elected officials, and as the proverb says, it's difficult for them all to work together without spoiling the broth. Maybe such cooperation is easier in a mid-size county like Wichita than in larger cities like San Antonio and Houston. In any event, if they can sustain it, their example shows such problems are not insoluble, or rather there are more solutions to be had than simply ever-expanding jail construction.
"One of those factors is our staff being able to process faster, inmates that are ready to be sent to (Texas Department of Corrections) or state jail," Duke said. "We've also gotten help from the District Attorney's Office. We have more people being convicted and sent to prison now than we ever have that I can remember in the last 29 years of my service to Wichita County. That's because of the new district attorney and her staff that have changed a lot of the ways they do business up there."
Duke also touted the efforts of the district court and county court at law judges in dealing with plea arrangements on felony and misdemeanor cases. He said the judges are also able to handle many of those cases at the same time, further expediting the process.
The savings to the county, brought on by that streamlined process, have also helped out in other problem areas. Funds once earmarked for the crowded conditions are now being put toward a large amount of amassed overtime pay for county employees, Duke said.
He said the low numbers have also meant a cutback on overtime pay for jail staff requirements based on the daily inmate population.