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.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.
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.”
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.