Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bexar commissioners wonder why 1,000 fewer prisoners in jail brings no budget savings

Grits wrote on Sunday that it's "almost becoming the norm in Texas jails to understaff them considerably and make up the difference paying overtime at time-and-a-half." I was writing about the jail in Midland, but the same thing's going on, reports the SA Express News ("Disputes over jail staffing may move closer to resolution," Dec. 20) at the Bexar County Jail in San Antonio, much to the commissioners court's consternation. The story opens:
Guards are being forced to work excessive overtime and will continue to steadily quit as their morale hits all-time lows, the consequence of cutting 100 positions at the Bexar County Jail through attrition, warns Sheriff Amadeo Ortiz.

But ask county commissioners and County Manager David Smith, and they'll tell you the mandatory overtime is unnecessary, the jail is mismanaged and wastes money, and the 2012 budget cuts reflect the actual needs at the facility.

Conflicting views of the jail aren't new in Bexar County, but a new staffing analysis by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the state jail oversight agency, is expected next month and could bring the two sides closer.

“We have no vested interest as a third party,” said TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz. “Our only concern is: Can you get enough people to show up when you need them to? We do this routinely for jails, and it usually amounts to a difference of opinion between commissioners courts and sheriffs' offices.”
The commissioners court is frustrated that reducing the jail population hasn't resulted in tangible savings for the county budget:
“Obviously we don't agree with the way that they're running the jail,” said County Judge Nelson Wolff. “They refuse to recognize the fact that we have 500 less prisoners, and they still want the same number of people. It doesn't make sense to us.”

In January 2009, when Ortiz took the helm, there were 932 detention officers and the average daily inmate population was around 4,300, according to Smith. That summer, population peaked at around 4,600. Last week, it dipped to less than 3,600, a level not seen in a decade.

Staffing wasn't cut until the 2012 budget, passed in September. Exactly how many guards remain depends on whom you ask.

“We've used tons of money on drug courts, on mental health courts, on trying to treat people instead of incarcerate them,” Wolff said. “We've brought the population way down, but there's no savings on running the jail.”
For starters, kudos to Bexar County (and it could only result from a collective effort by many people) for reducing the jail population 22% in a year-and-a-half. That's a remarkable accomplishment. And indeed, it does seem queer that overtime costs haven't declined as a result.

At a staffing ratio of 48-1 (mandated by the Commission on Jail Standards), in theory a reduction of 1,000 inmates would allow the jail to have 20 fewer guards on duty at any give time. Other jails that have reduced populations were able to commensurately reduce jail expenditures. So I can understand commissioners' frustration. But classification issues and other complications aren't taken into account in such back-of-the-napkin calculations, so it's good they've turned to TCJS as a neutral arbiter.

Such conflicts between sheriffs, who run county jails, and commissioners courts, who hold the purse strings, are a fundamental, structural feature of jail oversight in Texas. While providing additional checks and balances, it also frequently results in gridlock and needless conflict over rather routine  management decisions, particularly when commissioners and the sheriff come from different political parties or indulge in personal feuds. I don't know who's right about the jail staffing question in Bexar County, but it seems to me a factual dispute, not an ideological one.


Texasred said...

Bexar county jail has been, and will be "an issue" in San Antonio for decades and is unlikely to be resovled anytime soon. I appreciate the intention but the reality is substantially different.
It is a "HONEY POT" for overtime and easy duty... that's not going to fade away into the sunset easily or quickly.

Bexar Deputy said...

Wow. I had not seen anything on the Bexar County Jail and staffing issues since I tried to contact the owner of this blog about the same issues some time ago. Im a bit late to the party, but I had to comment on the remarks by Texasred... Honeypot for overtime and easy duty???? You sir, have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. First off, I just got done doing a 16 hour stretch which involved two major incidents and I was forced to work the second 8 hours due to staff shortages. Thats time away from my family and friends and other obligations. As for easy duty, thats such a ridiculous statement that Im tempted to not even honor it with a reply, but unless you have worked there, you have no clue. The job is dangerous, stressful, seldom rewarding and aside from the inmate issues, we have to deal with incompetent management making things worse. Please, unless you know what you are talking about, just don't comment on things like this. Ive spent almost 20 years there. I speak from experience.