Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Media demagoguery won't help Potter County with jail crowding solutions

Local media discussions about jail overcrowding can sometimes be dishearteningly ignorant. At the Amarillo Globe-News, the "cirector [sic] of commentary" Dave Henry had a column on Jan. 18 titled "Get out of jail free cards no solution to crowding" that includes so many misperceptions and red herrings it's hard to know where to begin.

Earlier Globe-News reporting on the subject of Potter County Jail overcrowding had been downright thoughtful, explicating a consultant's analysis that broke down the various contributors to a full jail.  Kevin Welch reported ("Potter commissioners review options to ease jail overcrowding," Jan. 13) that:
Larry Irsik, a principal at Architexas, presented an overview of his company’s analysis, which involved many county departments.

He said Architexas looked at the types of inmates the jail holds, the process of moving through the justice system, pretrial risk assessment, probation and alternative monitoring, the speed of investigations and pretrial alternatives to incarceration.

One factor contributing to case delays is the backlog of the Texas Department of Public Safety crime lab.

“That was consistent throughout,” said Jeff Bradley, vice president and global director of HOK’s justice department.

Other delays were caused by the inability of courts, the jail and prosecuting attorneys to share information.

“There’s actually three software systems,” Bradley said, leading to redundant input of information and the potential for errors.
Using technology is one way the county could reduce its jail population. GPS tracking devices would cost about $2 per day for inmates awaiting trial versus $54 per day to house an inmate, according to the report.
Arguably, many folks in the jail could just be released on personal bonds. But even if judges felt that GPS tracking were necessary, by these data it would cost 3.7% of what they're paying to keep those folks locked up. In an era of declining crime, jail overcrowding is more often a result of failures in the system than an explosion in the number of lawbreakers. The consultants are right to look at excessive pretrial detention and inefficiencies in the courts as central causes of overincarceration.

Looking at the most recent jail population data for Potter County, a whopping 61% of inmates in the county jail hadn't been convicted of anything yet but were being held pretrial - nearly a quarter of Potter jail inmates are being held pretrial on lower-level misdemeanor or state jail felony offenses. Statewide, just 18.4% of jail inmates are misdemeanor and state jail defendants awaiting trial, so Potter is holding a greater proportion of low-level arrestees than other jurisdictions.

Bottom line, they're just incarcerating more people in Amarillo than they need to: Of counties with more than 100,000 residents, Potter County has the fifth highest county-jail incarceration rate, according to the Commission on Jail Standards. Their incarceration rate is 3.98 per 1,000 residents (compared to 2.2 per 1,000 in next-door Randall County, which is about the same size).

In his column, Mr. Henry never acknowledged that most Potter County Jail inmates have not been convicted of anything and compared suggestions that some of them be released to a jailbreak, echoing the Sheriff's line that if released they'd immediately launch a crime spree:
Last Thursday, there were 506 inmates at the jail — 263 considered violent and 243 considered nonviolent. That breaks down to 52 percent violent and 48 percent nonviolent.

It sure would be nice to get rid of nearly half the jail population just to ease the numbers, but is this really a solution?

“Just because they have a drug possession (charge), that means ‘Oh, well, we’ll just cut these people loose.’ OK, we’re going to cut them loose. So we’re going to give them more time to go do something else (illegal),” said Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas. “What’s the answer? I don’t know.”
So the Sheriff a) has no solutions to offer (except, implicitly, soaking the taxpayers for new jail construction) and b) appears to think the purpose of jail is to punish people before they're convicted, not after. If defendants are a danger to the community and need to be locked up, that's for a jury or a judge to decide after their case has been adjudicated. Before then, they're still "innocent until proven guilty," though admittedly that legal principle (particularly in Potter County, apparently) is mostly honored in the breach.

Mr. Henry is particularly concerned that pot smokers - mostly misdemeanor defendants, it should be noted - might be released from the jail:
Those who advocate the release of “nonviolent” offenders caught with a miniscule amount of an illegal drug have a rather unrealistic view of such offenders. If it could be guaranteed that all such offenders were merely puffing away in their parent’s basement with the only negative effect being a case of the munchies, most would probably say throw open the jail cell doors.
However, no man is an island.
What of drug users who neglect their responsibilities (children, family members, loved ones) just to get high? Or committed a crime for which they did not get caught in order to finance their high?
I hear often that the supposed innocent use of weed does not lead to the use of hard drugs. True, this is not automatic. From personal experience, though, I know of several acquaintances that started off with pot, and are now paying the price later in life (health-wise) for using hard drugs.
A little jail time, rather than a slap on the wrist and a get-out-jail-free card, just might wake some people up to the dangers of drug use.
This is pure ignorance: Most of these defendants, even if convicted, will never be sentenced to jail time. Pot possession under two ounces is a Class B misdemeanor and defendants almost always receive probation. For that matter, people convicted of possessing less than a gram of harder drugs get probation on the first offense, by law. They'll spend more jail time pre-trial than as a result of a sentence, a manifestation of the adage in Grits' epigraph that one might beat the rap but you won't beat the ride. Those folks are ALL getting out of jail sooner or later (sooner, if their families come up with bail.) To read his column, you'd think he believes they'll stay locked up forever and Amarillo will never need worry about them again.

As for Henry's friends who "are now paying the price later in life (health-wise)" after starting out as pot smokers, it must be said that alcohol is far more unhealthy than marijuana, by any measure, which is why a half-day's drive up Highway 87 from Amarillo in Colorado they've flat-out legalized the substance altogether. But one suspects the Globe-News won't soon be leading the charge to ban booze and incarcerate beer drinkers.

In recent years, many counties overbuilt local facilities and ended up needlessly boosting taxes to pay for debt on jails they didn't need. Folks in Amarillo could ask their friends in Lubbock about that. It sounds like Potter County commissioners are getting decent advice from their consultants on the actual sources of jail crowding (I've filed an open records request for the consultant's report to see for myself), but this sort of foolish, fact-free demagoguery from the local press won't help matters.


Anonymous said...

Is that why you quote the New York Times?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I quote lots of folks on this blog - in this case, the Globe-News - and when what they say is idiotic, I say so.

ckikerintulia said...

You nailed Henry. He's to the right of Ghengis Khan.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious how many of the misdemeanor cases are probably time served considering how long they have been in jail waiting disposition.

Does the sheriff send the monthly housing report to the prosecutor as required by the CCP?

Does the sheriff track case filing statuses with the prosecutor and courts by the arresting agencies? Often times, arresting agencies wait months before taking the case file to the DA.

What is the turn around time for paper ready status from the time the person is convicted on a felony and sentenced to state jail or TDCJ-ID?

Lot of other things I would be checking other than those listed.

Anonymous said...

It might be interesting to see the difference in cost of jails in Colorado and Texas . I know at lest one county tat has been most;ly tolerant of low level drug use. They already have seen cost for the jail and LEO drop in addition LEO has been able to better respond to real emergencies another benefit of legalization and keeping state and local taxes lower .
It is surprising how ,any people do not know the difference between jail and prison. Few people are in jail for any conviction . There is not any room. our jails are full of pre tail detainees who cold not make bail or bond often deliberately set too high as a way to punish before the case is adjudicated.

Anonymous said...

"often deliberately set too high as a way to punish before the case is adjudicated."

Nah, we have judges set bond high so that those charged will see the light and accept the plea bargain they are offered. It's far cheaper to have you lawbreakers accept an offer than it is for us to have to take a case to trial, and if you have to sit in jail a few weeks or months before you come to your senses, it's still cheaper than a trial.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Rev. Kiker, conservatives don't like new taxes or pointless government spending. Henry's isn't a conservative stance, just a really ignorant and/or thoughtless one.

FleaStiff said...

You silly silly jerk. You give us this useless litany and keep harping on non-violent and low-level adjectives.

Get with it, Jerk.

Cops LIKE putting people in jail. Cops are NOT going to put the rich and powerful in jail. Jail guards like keeping prisoners in jail, they do not like letting them out. Contractors who build jails like getting paid on those contracts, they don't want a bunch of bleeding heart hippies telling folks the jail is not needed. Investors like being paid off on those jail bonds, they don't want no streamlined efficient government taking that bond-money out of the system.

The purpose of the jail is to serve the cops and jailors; it ain't to serve the public and it sure ain't to serve the inmates!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Perhaps all that's true, FleaStiff, but voters outnumber all the interest groups you named. And when asked, lately they've shot down more jail building schemes than they've approved, or forced them to be scaled back dramatically (e.g., in Houston and Tyler).

If special interests in Potter County want a new jail, they'll have to justify it to the voters/taxpayers, who may well demand a better explanation than "pot smokers are bad."

FleaStiff said...

Every cop and every member of his family vote, same for jail guards, prison guards, drug counselors, ADAs, rehab owners, rehab workers, teachers... and they will grind down you do-gooders each and every time.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Got nothing to do with "do gooders," FleaStiff. That's certainly not why voters in Tyler repeatedly rejected jail bonds before finally approving a radically scaled down version.

These days, it's all about the money. Folks are sick of their property taxes going up.

FleaStiff said...

Folks may be sick of increased taxes but if that sickness was not felt or adequately expressed prior to the jail being built then too bad, once it is built it must be fully staffed and fully utilized irrespective of any matter of impact on the community until such time as the structure is obsolete.