Liberty County is already seeing a reduction in costs for the operation of the county jail thanks to a plan initiated by 253rd District Court Judge Chap B. Cain and supported by County Judge Craig McNair, County Court-at-Law Judge Tommy Chambers and 75th District Court Judge Mark Morefield to reduce the inmate population. Morefield discussed the plan as guest speaker of the Cleveland Rotary Club luncheon on Jan. 18
According to Morefield, at the time the plan was put into place, the county was spending 11 percent of its total budget, around $3.85 million, to fund the county jail. Much of the burden had to do with the fact that non-violent offenders were not being released because they were unable to pay their bond.
“It is not about overcrowding. It’s about the expense to the county and ultimately the taxpayers of Liberty County,” said Morefield. “The plan is designed to release low-risk inmates. Give them a PR (personal recognizance) bond and get them out of jail and off the fee list. With PR bonds, there hasn’t always been oversight, but our plan alleviates some of the concern.”
In early 2011, there were 372 male and female inmates in the county jail. For each inmate, the county was required to pay $46.50 to the company contracted to manage the jail, Community Education Centers (CEC).
That equated to around $17,000 per day in costs to the county for housing the inmates.
When the judges met in April prior to the plan being implemented, the inmate population had dropped, but the cost to the county was still around $10,000 per day. According to Morefield, the recent inmate population has dropped to 132.
“That is still not sufficient. We ought to be able to get it down to 100-110,” he said.
While saving county taxpayers is the objective of the plan, the judges are not totally focused on money matters.
“We would never sacrifice the safety of our citizens for economy,” said Morefield.Liberty County's approach works for one simple reason: The local judiciary led the effort and that's who actually makes the decision regarding whether defendants must put up bail. Any objections by local bail bond companies were apparently overruled and the DA, judging from comments in the article, didn't fight the change, so this is a model that may not be replicable elsewhere.
There's a kicker, though: The private prison company which manages the facility, alarmed by declining inmate numbers (and the state's closure of a small intermediate sanctions faciliity housed at the jail), wants to raise the county's per-inmate rate, wiping out savings to the taxpayer from all their hard work. Reported the Advocate's Vanessa Brasher:
The judges’ plan, having saved the taxpayers millions, may have inadvertently forced the county to no longer outsource the jail’s operation.Most Texas counties can run their jails at a far lower cost per day than the estimates being bandied about in this story, so de-privatization may indeed make a great deal of economic sense, particularly now that jail population numbers are down an amazing 64.5% in just a single year's time!
The county is currently accepting bids for the jail contract. Morefield said companies submitting bids are apparently aware of the judges’ inmate reduction plan. All of the bids received so far are set on a sliding fee scale.
“One bid said that if the inmate population goes below 200, the cost per inmate goes from $63 to $68 per day. If we work really hard to decrease the inmate population, the cost will go up to $70 per day,” said Morefield. “They are taking all the incentive out of it.”
Morefield feels the county is capable of managing its own jail.
“The prevailing thought any time the government undertakes a project is that the government will pay 1.5 times for something. Government is wasteful. I challenge that thinking that government cannot compete with the private sector. I advocate that you talk to county commissioners about the county taking over the jail,” said Morefield. “I am not saying it will be economically feasible but the taxpayers deserve answers to this issue.”
Grits mentioned the other day how remarkable and noteworthy it is that crime rates (including homicides) declined dramatically in Houston during a period when the county jail population decreased 31%. And in Bexar County, the commissioners court is interrogating why a large reduction (1,000+) in inmate numbers hasn't yielded more savings for the county.
Liberty County's relative achievement (though on a much smaller scale) is even more impressive and worthy of emulation. Their example shows that when judges take the lead, excess incarceration at county jails can be reduced pretty darn rapidly, with little identifiable detriment to public safety. The main barrier to reducing jail costs is a lack of leadership and political courage among judges, who have the authority to act and are uniquely positioned to build consensus among other elected officials (particularly DAs, who can easily throw monkey wrenches into the gears of they have no incentive to work together, and commissioners courts, who must pay for incarceration alternatives).
Finally, it's a welcome development that counties are beginning to see jails as an expense that could be cut instead of a sacred budget cow they daren't touch. I don't think Harris, Bexar, and Liberty will be the last counties we hear of in the next 3-5 years reducing jail populations to save costs.