This is a critical time for the Nueces County Jail because it's now at 93% capacity.Once again, I've no doubt the jail is overcrowded, but let us not suffer the absurd declaration that it's overcrowded because "We are 20 years behind the growth of the city." Instead, let's review the facts.
"The jail has been overcrowded a number of years. When I say overcrowded we have almost reached our capacity," said Nueces County Sheriff Jim Kaelin.
The jail can hold 1,068 inmates. It's limited by law not to exceed 90-percent capacity in case more space is needed for problem inmates or if maintenance issue surface.
"We are 20 years behind the growth of the city and that is a long time for everything else to grow around you and for your jail not to grow," said Kaelin.
In July of 1995, the Nueces County jail population stood at 892, of which 222 (25 percent) were being detained pretrial. In July 2014, the total population stood at 1,042, with 645 (62 percent) of those being detained pretrial. (See historical reports since 1992 here.) By comparison, the total 1995 population in Nueces County was 310,435, and 352,107 in 2013, or a 13.4 percent increase, while the jail population grew at a slightly greater rate - 16.8 percent.
Looking more closely, though, the 1995 jail population figure is artificially inflated because the jail was full back then of convicted offenders awaiting transfer to TDCJ, an issue that's been largely resolved in the 21st century since the state-prison system tripled in size. There were 334 convicted felons in Nueces awaiting transfer to prison on July 1, 1995, and only 132 in July 2014. Adjusted to account for those, the remaining jail population grew more than 50 percent.
Virtually all of the difference in the Nueces County jail population is accounted for by increased pretrial detention, which as we've discussed vis a vis Kerr County is a policy decision by judges and prosecutors, not a function of "growth." And keep in mind this is a period when crime rates dramatically declined.
Finally, the Sheriff speculated that extra jail space "could be paid for in part by money that comes from housing federal inmates." Any fiction that the jail will pay for itself in the current, over-saturated Texas incarceration market must be snuffed: Ask voters in Lubbock or Waco how that story turns out!
Perhaps, when it's debated publicly, Nueces County voters will support the policy decision to incarcerate so many more people pretrial, including hundreds of misdemeanor defendants. Or maybe they'll think scarce jail resources should be deployed more frugally. But portraying the need as stemming from simple population growth misrepresents the demand for more beds, which results from choices by elected officials, not some cosmic inevitability because there are sooo many more criminals these days.