Montgomery County Commissioner James Noack held a meeting this week with court, jail and DA's office officials hoping to get at the root causes for the county's current predicament. The main problem, he says, is the amount of pre-trial defendants -- who are presumably innocent until proven guilty -- held in lockup.Grits can't tell where the 29 percent figure for pretrial defendants in Bexar County comes from. I think it's wrong. Looking at the 8/1/14 county jail population report from the Commission on Jail Standards, misdemeanor, felony, and state jail felony inmates awaiting trial accounted for 57 percent of Bexar jail inmates, which is right around the statewide average. (Add the columns: "Pretrial felons," "Pretrial Misd.," and "Pretrial SJF.") In both Dallas and Travis Counties, astonishingly, 73 percent of jail inmates incarcerated on that day were there awaiting trial as of August 1.
According to the most recent numbers out of TCJS, 68 percent of those held in the Montgomery County jail are pretrial inmates. Statewide, 58 percent of county jail inmates are pretrial defendants. In Harris County, that number is 61 percent. In San Antonio, where county commissioners have made a concerted effort at pretrial diversion (like expanding specialty mental health and drug treatment courts), only 29 percent of county jail inmates are pretrial defendants.
Phil Grant, Montgomery County's first assistant district attorney, says the shuttering of the Sam Houston State University regional crime lab in 2012 exacerbated the county's jail woes. For example, the turnaround for blood analysis on felony DWI cases used to take about a week. Now, blood analysis and toxicology tests are done by the state DPS crime lab, which takes about six months, he says.
That means cases take much longer to clear. And if the defendants can't afford bail, they clog the jail for months.
Nate Jensen, the county's director of court administration, says recent years have seen an explosion in arrests and case filings as the local population grows. "Most agencies have more boots on the ground now," he said. "And if you have more police, you're going to have more instances where people...well, get caught." In 2004, about 4,000 felony cases were filed. Last year, the Montgomery County DA's office filed about 5,700.
Even so, I stand by my assessment that the number of pretrial defendants could be reasonably lowered to at least half or less of the overall jail population in Texas' larger counties. Back in 1995, pretrial defendants made up just 30.3 percent of Texas county jail inmates. As of 8/1/14, they made up 59.5 percent of jail inmates statewide, a slight uptick from the previous month and up from 53 percent in 2008.
What's needed is to shift from bail-based pretrial release criteria to ones grounded in risk assessment tools and a system-wide cost benefit analysis. Whether someone can pay is a poor indicator of whether or not they'll show up in court. But pretrial services experts have developed pretty effective risk-assessment models that are much more probative to the key question at hand than whether some family member can cover 10 percent to a bail bondsman.
My view: Save punishment till post-conviction. These high rates of pretrial incarceration do little to further public safety and generate serious collateral consequences that in some cases do more harm than good.
Note to Brandon Wood, et. al., at TCJS: Please, PLEASE create an archive for your old monthly county jail population reports going back as long as you've got them! They're incredibly useful for historical comparison. Why not? :)
H/T: Off the Kuff.