Thursday, October 28, 2004

Travis Commissioners: Find Alternatives to Jail Expansion

The Austin American Statesman reported Tuesday that the Travis County Commissioners Court wants to issue $100 million in bonds to expand the county jail (registration required) by 1,688 beds to solve overcrowding problems.

"The driving force behind the bond package is the warning from Texas Commission on Jail Standards two years ago that the county needed to find a long-term fix to jail crowding issues," the paper reported.

Travis County's jails have been a disgrace for quite a while, and were named worst in the state by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards just a few years ago. "When I got there, we were in an absolute jailing crisis," said state Rep. Terry Keel, R-Austin, who was elected sheriff in November 1992.

None of that means issuing $100 million in bonds is a good idea. For starters, voters already approved bond money for that purpose -- $67.7 million that should have boosted capacity to 3,600 by 2003.

"But much of that money was diverted to pay for large budget overruns on the new downtown Criminal Justice Center," reported the Statesman three years ago. "Fewer than half of the extra beds materialized."

So what makes anybody think they'll spend the money right this time? County commissioners ignored this problem for too long to focus on their own pet projects. In 2001 the county issued $185 million in bonds for road building, hyping expensive and speculative new roads to the suburbs instead of solving longstanding jail problems. Both the city and the school district have issued more debt since then, too, and voters recently approved a new hospital district, so now Austin-area voters are basically bonded up to the eyeballs.

It's getting awfully expensive to live here.

After sticking voters with a 2001 wish list that didn't include core essentials, now the county wants to issue more debt. Judge Biscoe told the Statesman they could issue bonds to build 572 beds without voter approval because the county had no choice to do the work, but said he wanted the remaining $60-$70 million to be approved by the voters.

Gosh, that's nice of him.

But there are a lot of ways the county, with the help of the city, could resolve the jail overcrowding problem without issuing new debt. Here's just a sampling of ideas:

While Governor Perry twice vetoed versions of the "Soccer Mom" law, which would have forbade officers from arresting anyone for Class C (traffic ticket-level) offenses, the Travis Sheriff and Austin PD could themselves implement that policy to lower jail admissions.

The Republican former chairman of the Texas House Corrections committee, Rep. Pat Haggerty of El Paso, last year proposed a bill that would have limited the amount of time people could be kept on probation for felonies if they had no significant violations. The maximum probation length for misdemeanors in Texas is two years. Only 24 percent of Travis County probationers are on probation for high risk offenses. If Travis County made probation for non-violent misdemeanors end after one year, the number of new jail entries due to probation revocations would decline after 12 months had passed. Travis County probation officers' caseloads are so high, anyway, they can't provide adequate supervision. Bottom line, shorter, tougher probation works better to actually change lives. Probationers who enter the system on technical violations two years after the offense needlessly take up bed space without any benefit to public safety.

The County could also look at limiting probation revocations for "technical violations" of probation conditions, or even stop requiring urinalysis tests as a probation condition in non-drug related cases. While judges could implement this policy of their own accord, the county probation department could alter guidelines and recommendations to facilitate the change.

Some indirect policy changes could have big consequences. The Travis Sheriff and Austin police should ban consent searches, or searches where an officer asks for permission to search but has no probable cause. (Officers already can search if they see probable cause or want to pat someone down for their own protection.) As officers have told me many times, police are only searching for two things: drugs and guns. So, if we don't have any space to put people away for low-level possession, and the officer has no cause to think someone is armed, there's little law enforcement benefit and much wasted time and goodwill from conducting lots of consent searches. Austin PD officers search black people more than five times as often as whites (pdf file), according to the department's 2003 racial profilng report, so the policy would also radically reduce police discrimination. To the extent these searches are leading to incarceration for low-level drug possession or otherwise violating probation conditions, they're increasing the number of people, mostly black and brown people, in the county jail who don't necessarily need to be there.

Another option is to look closely at the wisdom of incarcerating for vice crimes.

Chicago is considering a system of fines instead of incarceration as punishment for low-level marijuana possession to relieve the clogged court system and increase revenues. (The fine, Chicago-based blog decrimwatch was established to monitor this development.) In Texas, that would require a change in state law; such a bill was considered last legislative session and will likely be re-introduced next year. In the meantime, though, Travis sheriff deputies and Austin police could be ordered by policy to write tickets for paraphernalia violations instead of possession misdemeanor possession offenses, and it would have the same net effect.

In Berkeley, CA, next week voters will consider Proposition Q, which according to the ballot language would "1) make enforcement of prostitution laws the lowest priority; 2) oppose state laws making prostitution a crime; and 3) require semi-annual reporting of prostitution-related Berkeley Police Department law enforcement activities." Opponents of the measure say it would increase costs because it would increase crime, but the truth is to the extent prostitution busts are contributing to jail overcrowding, it would lower jail overcrowding costs. Like the good folks at the blog Vice Squad, I'd prefer regulation and zoning to simply lowering the enforcement priority, but that would require changing state law, while something like Proposition Q could be implemented internally as policy without any changes in state or local law.

Having tried none of these approaches, Travis County Commissioners cannot tell voters in good faith that borrowing $100 million is our only option. While the proposed vote won't take place until November 2005, it's never too early to tell the politicians to get smarter on crime before they raise our bond debt and thus our taxes.

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