Members of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas met this past week to prepare for battle again with state lawmakers over an issue costing area taxpayers.Notice that, like the police unions and prosecutors, the Sheriff's Association these days sees the Legislature as an opponent against whom they must "prepare for battle," in Thomas' words. Here are the latest data on blue warrants from a side bar accompanying the story:
The contention is blue warrants, which are issued by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division. They act as an order to arrest and hold parole violators in county facilities without bail or reimbursement — and therein lies the problem.
The biennial battle between county sheriffs and the Texas Legislature centers around counties being required to feed, bed and provide medical treatment for the state’s inmates, often for months at a time.
Sheriffs across the state are looking for the 83rd Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would make parole violators eligible for bail or require state reimbursement to counties for their services.
“This is the No. 3 issue on our list after mental health and border security,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk.
Blue warrants by the numbers
Here's the December 1, 2012 county jail population report (pdf) from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, where they appear to have gotten their data, with one key exception: I have no idea where that last "no beds available" bullet comes from. Texas jails were at 68% of capacity statewide and by my count, just ten counties reported occupancy rates above 90%. Two of them were quite small (Duval and Ochiltree) and several others' occupancy rates were boosted by contract prisoners held for other agencies (McLennan, El Paso, Fannin). With 614 contract prisoners compared to just 90 parolees, El Paso's full jail is volitional; ditto for Fannin. Regular readers may recall that high jail costs from "tuff on crime" policies by the new McLennan County DA have become a political issue as the county has been forced to raise taxes to pay for rising jail costs.
Four mid-sized counties - Hidalgo, Ector, Webb and Parker, five if you include McLennan - were the largest jails at more than 90% capacity with only homegrown prisoners. There were 292 parolees in those five jails, which collectively held 3,525 inmates on December 1, meaning 8.2% of the total inmates in those few, crowded jails were there for blue warrants. The big outlier among them, though, was McLennan County, where for reasons this writer fails to fully understand, alleged parole violators made up 13.2% of the county jail population, compared to 7.6% in Hidalgo County, 7.9% in Ector County, 4.8% in Parker County, 5.6% in Walker, and 5.1% in Webb. Why would the number be so much higher in McLennan? The question deserves further investigation.
Looking beyond those few, crowded jails to the big picture, however, compared to just a few years ago when the largest Texas counties exceeded capacity and Harris County was shipping prisoners off to Louisiana, Texas' jail overcrowding problems have largely subsided statewide, especially in the largest jurisdictions. More could be done, and indeed a time of declining crime might be just the historical moment to do it, but the jail overcrowding crisis isn't nearly as immediate as it was just a few sessions ago, for a variety of reasons.
The Sheriffs face two big barriers to passing their blue warrant bill: 1) the Legislature does not appear to be in the mood to pick up more county costs (e.g., a request to pay for unfunded mandates related to indigent defense was rebuffed in the initial House and Senate budgets.), and 2) Governor Rick Perry already vetoed legislation to allow bail for parole violators six years ago, so as long as he's Governor, he's the main person that needs convincing. Perry did sign a new law last session allowing parole officials to use summons instead of "blue warrants" in some circumstances where the parolee did not pose an flight risk or immediate threat, but I've seen no data on how often, if at all, that new authority has been used.
There's an extent to which Grits sympathizes with the Sheriffs on this issue and I've supported their bill to allow bail for blue warrants, although jail populations have declined since the governor's veto and the immediate need to free up space has lessened in the largest jurisdictions. But in the big picture, the counties wouldn't want the fiscal logic they suggest applied across the system. Would county prosecutors seek such long sentences if the state billed the local county-commissioners court for the cost of defendants' incarceration, including the medical bills for elderly prisoners, etc.? If the state agreed to pay for 100% of blue-warrant costs, would the counties in turn agree to pay the cost for the state to incarcerate everyone they send to TDCJ? Not a chance. So in the big picture, such complaints ring hollow, though the short-term costs the Sheriffs are reacting to are certainly real enough.