Thursday, January 22, 2015

Kerr County Sheriff defends jail bond vote; Grits responds

After Grits critiqued the numbers behind the proposed Kerr County jail bond vote in May, Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer sent around an email attempting to justify the proposed new debt and accompanying higher taxes. His direction "please forward to all" meant it eventually found its way to me, so thanks to the thoughtful reader who passed it along. Find his letter below the jump, followed by Grits' reactions.

A Letter from the Sheriff

I would like to respond to numerous inquiries as to the reason for a jail expansion and the costs. The county has been attempting every way possible to avoid a jail expansion bond.  I, for one, would have to say that the last thing any sheriff wants is more inmates, more employees, or more liability.  This county, along with others, fought for and achieved the re-districting of our District (felony) Courts.  Our two District Courts now service five counties instead of ten as they had three years ago, enabling faster court dates.

Approximately eight years ago we explored utilizing the old Juvenile Detention Center as a place to house adults.  This was determined to be unacceptable.  Please see the full report posted on the Sheriff’s Office website.

In 2002 the Commissioners Court appointed a committee to study the Long Range Plan for the Sheriff’s Office.  Also, see this full report on the Sheriff’s Office web site.

Overcrowding at our jail has been a problem off and on for over ten years.  We have also had numerous meetings with our Judges over bond amounts, and we are releasing on bond all that we can.  The minor offenders are released from jail and are not counted in our population numbers.

Probation is a great program but there must be consequences when it is not adhered to.

As of today, January 20, 2015, the jail is currently housing 54 inmates for probation or parole violations, 29 inmates for bond forfeitures, 4 inmates for murder or capital murder, 6 inmates for sexual assault, 11 inmates for aggravated assaults, 124 inmates are felonies, and 13 are for misdemeanors.  Of the misdemeanors 7 are for violations of probation, 2 for assaults, 2 for court commits, and 2 had come in the night before waiting to see a judge.
Rehabilitation only works when inmates want to be rehabilitated.  Probation only works when inmates want to follow the same rules in society that the majority of us already follow.

Now for the costs.  As was stated in open court, the estimated cost of the addition is 15 million dollars.  What we are looking at here is how many more beds we will need for the next 20 years, the life of the debt.  The last thing anyone wants to do is add on now, and even before that is paid off, have to add on again.  The cost of the tax increase is 1 ¾ pennies per $100.00 value or approximately $17.75 for a $100,000 home; less than going out to eat one time.  There is an additional cost that would take effect in about 2018 of .0292 pennies, less than 3 pennies, for the additional staffing required.  Then the total tax rate starts dropping where the last year of the debt the rate is .0088 (less than one penny).  The financial analysis can also be located on the Sheriff’s Office website.

I will be more than happy to come explain this issue in detail to any group that would like a better explanation. The county is forbidden by law to promote this issue but the county is allowed to report the facts about it to our citizens.

I will also attempt to put some questions and answers about this issue on the Sheriff’s Office website. There is one question that I am already getting a lot of, and that is why we don’t use tents.  The easy answer to that is that we do not have enough inmates that fit into the risk classification as required by the state and public safety to go into tents; and second, the manpower costs would skyrocket for guards.  You see within ½ mile of the jail are the following:  1 college, 1 elementary school, 1 daycare, 1 senior citizen apartment complex, and numerous neighborhoods.  The third reason, by state rules, is that tents can only be on a temporary basis. It is not public information that the sheriff in Arizona, for one thing, does not have a state agency that oversees rules on running a county jail.  Second, he has 3,000 or so beds in a jail and only 300 or so beds in tents.  Due to civil rights lawsuits, his insurance deductible per lawsuit is now over one million dollars, and Kerr County’s is $10,000.

Our public should also understand that if your property taxes have already been frozen due to you being over 65 years of age, this tax increase will not have any effect on your taxes.  This increase is only on property taxes paid to the county.  It does not involve any school district taxes, UGRA taxes, Headwaters Groundwater taxes, or Lateral Roads taxes.

The website for the Kerr County Sheriff’s Office is:  I may be contacted by phone, (omitted), or email, if you have any questions.

Thank you,
Sheriff Rusty Hierholzer
First, Hierholzer's arguments against  using tents for the jail were refreshing. That really is a non-solution clown move, propagated by a clown, Joe Arapaio, and the liability insurance arguments were especially strong.

Next, I should admit sympathy to Hierholzer's position. As Sheriff and administrator of the jail, he must house whomever law enforcement and the courts say he must. He's not in control of the county jail population (though it's unclear whether he's used tools which are at a Sheriff's disposal, like good time credits). So, for example, he's not responsible for the fact that, his facility is full of people who haven't been convicted awaiting trial, a shift which is primarily responsible for his full jail. As Grits described earlier:
Kerr County had a population of just more than 40,000 in 1995 and a little less than 50,000 in 2013, according to the census, growing by roughly a quarter over those two decades. By comparison, the Kerr County jail population more than doubled between August 1995 (69) and August 2014 (157). So jail population growth isn't a function of the county's population growth, it's caused by decisions mainly by local prosecutors and judges to use the jail more aggressively than in the past for pretrial detention. In 1995, upward pressure on the jail population came more from detaining convicted felons awaiting transfer to TDCJ than felons awaiting trial; by 2015 that dynamic had flipped. Pretrial detainees went from 25 to 69 percent of a twice-as-large jail population.
Despite my sympathies, though, I must admit Grits reacts with suspicion when I see a sheriff describing jail population numbers with the caveat, "as of today" instead of referencing the public jail population reports from the Commission on Jail Standards, especially when the official numbers don't confirm his claims. In the official reports, parole revocations are quite low as a proportion of the jail population in Kerr County and the number of convicted offenders in the jail. as of the most recent public report (Nov. 1, 2014), indicated nowhere near the numbers of revoked probationers he cites. Since Hierholzer did not address the big-picture issue of pretrial detention, which according to any data-driven analysis is the principle driver of Kerr County's rising jail population, overstating those data in an unverifiable way to me seemed like obfuscation.

It's okay for the Sheriff to admit that policy decisions to use pretrial detention more frequently are driving his jail bond vote - again, he's the administrator, he doesn't decide who is arrested or who is eligible for personal bond.  Grits is not universally opposed to jail construction but I'm opposed to jail building based on politically driven policy choices like excessive use of pretrial detention as opposed to core public safety needs. I've backed off opposing jail bonds where I thought they were driven by true demographic need and/or to improve aged, decrepit facilities. But I'm sick of the attitude that 'all the cool Sheriffs have a bigger jail.' Then, when it's built and taxes are raised, usually more than promised pre-vote, prosecutors and judges fill up the beds with un-convicted people awaiting trial no matter how big you build it.

If you build it, in other words, they will come. Refuse to build it, then Kerr County judges and prosecutors must address their pretrial detention issues, the Sheriff must revisit his good-time policies, and local officials must begin to pay closer attention to who is being jailed and why. As far as I'm concerned, that's all a good thing.


Joorie Doodie said...

Kerr County voters need to be schooled in the lesson offered by Smith County: your assertion that "if you build it, they will come is absolutely true. Smith county's jail was full again almost immediately after their last major jail expansion in the mid 1980's. Additions to the minimum/medium security facility in to ealry '90s are already inadequate. County tax increases in the past few years have largely been driven by jail-building, plus other irresponsible spending on the part of county leaders. So now we're looking at a $33Million dollar debt in a county that otherwise will not incur debt for anything else, including much-needed infrastructure improvements. I think you're right, Grits, you liberal devil: once new jail beds are built, there is no longer an incentive for courts and prosecutors to use that resource wisely, and many go back to the "lock-em all up" mentality that led to jail overcrowding in the first place!

Beware, voters of Kerr County! Don't end up like the hapless sheeple of Smith County!

Anonymous said...

Bullseye on this issue. Pretrial detention is the driver of Kerr County's jail population and is directly related to the district attorneys' use of pretrial detention as punishment in lieu of trying cases. On average, less than 1 felony trial occurs per month in Kerr County, even more shocking when you consider that Kerr County overlaps with two district attorneys who collectively employ 8 prosecutors. Instead, Kerr County prosecutors regularly leave pretrial inmates sitting in jail until enough time has lapsed to offer a "time served" plea bargain. With few cases brought to trial, high bonds and pretrial detention have become the routine punishment in Kerr County.

Anonymous said...

Pretrial detention seems to be the driver of most, if not all of the so called overcrowding at the county jails. If Kerr County has two district attorneys, and 8 prosecutors, yet only average 1 felony trial a month, then the problem lies at the doorsteps of the DA's. Which goes back to what I have said all along is part of what is wrong in Texas. The DA's who are elected want to come across as being "hard on crime", so they use the jails as a means to force pretrial inmates to accept ridiculous plea deals to keep their conviction rate up. Perhaps it's time the lege weighed in on this by mandating that defendants be afforded their right to a speedy trial within a set time frame or be released. I would like for some legal beagle to explain to me how to justify holding someone for upwards of two years on pretrial, often times for relatively minor offenses. I seriously doubt any one can other than it is the prerogative of the DA to bring a case to trial, and in most cases, not in a timely manner.

Anonymous said...

The problem is with the "Prosecutors & Judges".

If there has been no harm or damage and this harm or damage is not witnessed and there is no Claimant other than 3rd party - there is no case!

The State cannot take the stand.