Monday, September 26, 2005

Why are Texas county jails overcrowded? Pretrial detention

SEE ALSO: Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding.

Inmates aren't yet everywhere sleeping on the floors like they are in Harris County, but across Texas most county jails face an overincarceration crisis. What is the cause? Are there really that many more criminals today than before? Hardly, crime is actually down. So why? Put simply, more Texans are incarcerated
pending trial, i.e., before they're convicted, than in the past, especially in larger counties.

An analysis by
Grits of data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found that, while county jail populations increased 27% between 1995 and 2005, almost all that stemmed from more frequent detention of defendants before trial. (For 1995 data, see this report [pdf]; for current data, this one [pdf].) In other words, there are many more defendants who can't make bail awaiting trial these days in the county lockup. Particularly for misdemeanants, just a decade ago many of those defendants would have been released on personal bond so taxpayers wouldn't pay to house them.

Bottom line: These trends represent harsher decisions by judges about when defendants should be released on bond -- another case where being tough on crime amounts to being
tough on taxpayers, with little public safety benefit. A decade ago, pretrial defendants made up 30.3% of the statewide Texas jail population. Today the number is nearly half, at 48.3%.

Historical data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards shows dramatic increases in pretrial detention since 1995. The number of felony defendants statewide being held pretrial increased by 60%, while the number of misdemeanants increasd by a whopping 116%. In addition, a new class of defendants that didn't exist before-- those awaiting trial for state jail felonies, mostly low-level drug offenders -- went from zero in 1995 to occupying more than 5,400 county jail beds statewide on September 1, 2005.

What does that mean to the average defendant? Judges are more likely to require them to put up bail than ten years ago, when they may have been released on 'personal bond,' or a promise to appear. Now if they can't pay, more defendants must sit in jail awaiting trial. Defendants in drug cases, in particular,
wait long periods racking up unnecessary jail costs while the Department of Public Safety tests for controlled substances. (See earlier Grits coverage of pretrial detention policies in Harris and Tarrant counties.)

The knee jerk reaction to lock even petty misdemeanants up before trial can't be justified based on what's best for public safety. It's just kind of mean-spirited and counterproductive, showboating for gullible voters with little tangible crimefighting benefit. With so many jurisdictions operating local lockups that are bursting at the seams, it makes little sense to continue the trend, unless, perhaps, you're a bail bondsman. Here are the incarceration rates for pretrial detainees at several of Texas' larger county jails:

What percentage of Texas county jail
inmates are awaiting trial?
In 1995, just 30.3% of Texas county jail inmates
statewide were incarcerated awaiting trial. Now it's nearly half.
In many large counties, the figure is much higher:


Pretrial Detainees as
Percentage of
County Jail Population













El Paso
















Source: Texas Commission on Jail Standards,
September 1, 2005 Jail Population Report (pdf)
CLARIFICATION: Link goes to current month's report; 9-1-05 is no longer online.
(Percentages calculated by adding separate figures for felony, misdemeanant, and state jail felony pretrial inmates, and dividing the sum by the total jail population.)


Anonymous said...

What would you rather do with them? How can you guarantee that they show up for court? And when they don't, how do you propose we pay for the extra man-hours it will take to find these guys and bring them to court (and then we have to put them in jail for not showing up)? Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying that ALL "petty" misdemeanor offenders need to be locked up before trial. But keep in mind a couple things: many misdemeanors are crimes of violence (e.g., first time "non-serious bodily injury" domestic violence assaults - whose victims need protection) and most misdemeanor bail amounts are set pretty low so they can make them. And as far as state jail felonies - they're not new criminals - just a new way of classifying old criminals. And they're hardly low-level - do you know what a guy could do with the amount of cocaine it takes to make it a state jail felony? He could make more money selling that stuff in a day than I do. Texas county jails are overcrowded because we can't afford the manpower to guard the jails that we have. Brand new jails are empty because we can't afford new guards, so old jails stay overcrowded with overworked and underpaid guards. I'm not saying that the bail system isn't flawed or that there shouldn't be some reform. I don't pretend to know all the answers, but I don't think think unwarranted or unfair pre-trial detention is the main cause of overcrowding. Yes, crime is down compared to a decade ago. But maybe that means we're doing something right.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@md: I don't know all the answers, either, but your assumptions about absconding are needlessly pessimistic. Most people released on personal bond empirically show up for court just fine everywhere it's practiced. I'll guarantee the man hours required to find folks who don't show costs less than the extra costs for needlessly jailing so many. Also, few domestic violence or assault defendants will ever get released without supervision, and never did. That's a red herring.

Similarly, your info is way off on state jail felonies: only drug offenders who possessed LESS than a gram of powder are charged with a SJF. You must be unemployed to make so little, because that's small-time, personal use weight -- nobody's making a living dealing those amounts.

Finally, you say "Brand new jails are empty because we can't afford new guards." But why do we need the new guards or jails? Because we're incarcerating ever-more people, more and more frequently, Jail Commission statistics say, because they can't make bail. It's not like I made the numbers up! Best,

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, my statements about absconding are pretty accurate, based on my experience working in the CJ system. Of the defendants I've seen released on personal bond, less than half showed up for their first court date.
And you're right about my comments being wrong on the SJF - I was thinking about 1st-degree felonies. And as little as I make in the CJ system, I'm barely one step above being unemployed.
A decade ago we were releasing more defendants on personal bond. And a decade ago, crime rates were higher. Today, more people are in jail pre- and post-conviction. And today, crime rates are down. I know there's more to it than that, but don't you think there's some correlation there?
The fact is that I like your forum here and I read it often, but I disagree with your point that people are "needlessly" jailed prior to trial if they don't make bail.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thanks, md - I wish I thought you were likely to get a raise! I'm not advocating for cutting everybody loose willy nilly, but for a front-end evaluation process that uses personal bonds where appropriate. In Harris County, Pretrial Services claims to identify low-risk candidates for PR with a 3% no-show rate, even if some judges don't follow the recommendations. As a result, their percentage is the lowest on the chart. By contrast, right now I think most judges are flying by the seat of their pants, and erring too often on the side of harsher bail terms. Inarguably they're requiring bail more often of people who can't afford it, but what is the relation between the inability to pay and the likelihood of committing another crime?

As for the crime rate argument, it went down nationally more than in Texas even though our incarceration rate tops the country, so it's hard to understand how you could pin the reduction on this specific policy. I could be wrong, but IMO crime rates went down despite Texas' penchant for locking up low-level offenders, hardly because of it.

Thanks for stopping by, seriously, md. Come back often and tell your friends. Best,

Anonymous said...

Interesting dialogue, it occurred to me that maybe jail is for alot of these people an opportunity to reconnect with love ones, eat, sleep, watch tv, quit smoking, rest, read,etc., all the stuff we tax payers associate with taking a vacation. So I prupose we change jail to work. Then maybe all the parties who support this both criminal and tax payer could actually benefit. The guests over at county holding represent some significant man power. Besides until the free world who devises these arrangements and punishments realizes that to the criminal freedom actually is a burden for survival, I imagine these detention rates will continue to rise.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous, let me ask you ...

When was the last time you were in jail?

When was the last time you talked to somebody in jail?

Believe me, it's not a vacation. I've never met a single defendant who thought of spending a few months behind bars as a vacation. Not one. You talk about "changing jail to work" as though inmates didn't have jobs on the outside before they got locked up. That might be true for some, but the vast majority were working right up until the day they got locked up.

If you really believe that "to the criminal, freedom is a burden to survival," well ... you're just a damn fool. I spend every day with defendants, with their families, and I can't imagine anybody who actually knows a thing or two about jail ever saying something so insanely stupid. Hell ... you don't have to listen to some commie PD like me. Find a CO and ask him what the inmates think of their new home.

Anonymous said...

A prosecutor in a small town that is only interested in showing what he is doing and keeping his job will opt for probation on a lot of cases that should be sent straight to prison. His rational is that it's a conviction and if he screws up, it's a lot easier to send him to prison then. That dumps everyone on the probation department and when the guy does anything wrong, a warrant is issued to revoke his probation and there he sits in the county jail for who knows how long. Also as you have said, so much of this is a money game. Bail Bondsman helps prosecutor get elected and the prosecutor wants a bond or no release. It also looks like the Judge is "tough on crime". In a small town, politics is everything.

Anonymous said...


Crime maybe low but drug crimes are high. America claims to protect us but why can't they get a handle on drugs coming from Mexico? But America sends our children off to prison for years only because America puts the blame silly kids just getting out of high school knowing that if they ran up their parents credit cards while in college their considered crazy kids but if their the same age, on drugs, suppling their habits, their considered adults. I point the blame on drugs at America. Protect our kids and stop the drugs on the border from coming in. Drugs are a billion $ industry... America sends the little guys (usually 19-23) to prison and claims to have done something. Shame on America! Our children should be put in a rehab center and back in school not prison for life. Police Detectives make deals with children to help them identify large drug source, knowing the children are on drugs, forget using the kid to do your job... have a heart and send them first to rehab. Thier on drugs!!!!America can't stop drugs how can we expect our kids (silly one's at that) to control an out of control substance!

Anonymous said...

Galveston County bonds are very high and the ADA's the nerve to stand up and say" We adhere to the agreed bond schedule". The Attorneys never . The public never my clients never agreed... IT is unconstitutional!!!
Bond is for return to court not punishment.!!!

The Galveston County Da's office attaches it's own punishment without regard to the facts of the case...
People sit in jail for six months or more then the DA wants to offer time served!!!

Want to clear jails set Maximum bonds!!!! statewide. Stop Da's from being judges. Stop judges from punishing a person ACCUSED of a crime and being poor.

Anonymous said...

some people in the jails are inncocent and belong there .. but from experience i spent waisted time because i didnt have the money to post bail.. so they should lower bonds or hold criminals that have severe charges unless they can be bonded..

Anonymous said...

Judges must be held accountable for remembering what bond is supposed to do. A first-time offender who has a home and family and job is less likely to fail to appear.Bond should be set at an attainable amount so that the accused can be released to assist their families and their defense. Pre-trial defendants are NOT convicted persons and should not be treated as such. Defendants with prior arrests should be treated differently than first timers. This would also discourage repeat of criminal activity. When a person is in jail, he/she is not being anything to the community but a burden. Allowing them to post an attainable bond keeps them productive and with a financial reason to appear. That's the purpose of a bond, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

First of all I agree on the fact that bonds are way to high & when found not guilty you are still out of your money because the bondsman doesn't give any of it back. The Lawyer doesn't give it back either. So now you have lost your job, your income, possibly your home, car, electricity & anything else you couldn't pay.
Next I feel like the war on drugs is screwed up mainly because the drug that is more addictive that kills more people & destroys more families is legal & easy to obtain, you can't get your snap even in a emergency is alcohol. How many people have you known beat up someone or wrecked behind weed I have known over the years both groups of people & believe me I would rather be around someone high then drunk. We have people setting up there that have never done anything & talking crap they no nothing about. Take it ot the public you would be surprised to here what family members say but heck most of congress & everyone high up drink so shhhhh lets leave this one alone. WAKE UP PEOPLE & OUT BOOZE

Anonymous said...

Try to post bond in Harris County; you would be surprised at the extranous amounts the judges there set. How can anyone pay the bonds?

Texas has become a hell hole and mostly due to the way the courts are allowed to operate. First, the DAs are corrupt and the Judges and a lot of the defense lawyers decide what is going to happen to a defendant before the trial even starts. This is how utterly stupid the justice system in Texas has become.

Anonymous said...

The Judges are the biggest problem. I speak for Galveston County on that note anyhow. The morons over there will take a person straight out of the Hospital and lock them up for not paying a small and I mean small amount of child support just to please a disgruntled soon to be ex-wife who obviously was not in so great of the funds in the first place toting a 400$ per hour attorney. Its not just one particular case either there are anywhere from 80 to 200 persons in there for similar charges. I am not by any means condoning the actions of a parent who does not pay the support they should for their children but when there are circumstances outside of their ability the judge needs to pull their head out of their ass and use some common sense rather than listen to the louder attorney whom operates outside of his sworn obligations. Its not just child support cases either there are many many other misdemenor persons in jail that have caused no harm to anyone in society but again the judge would rather hear idiots complain and whine because they feel their re-election will go much easier. We should be tough on crime and tough on child support but we should only be doing that when it is a rational decision and the time matches the offense. Morons they are all Morons.

Dolmance said...

The problem is, Texas is a mean state with mean people.

Anonymous said...

Funny how child predators can hang out on the streets until the investigation is over but people charged with lesser crimes wait until a judge has time to pull his head up out of the waters and go to trial! I know both sides of the system very well. I firmly believe the state should push for more birth control or sterilizing the crackhead parents so the vicious cycle will stop! I've worked in a juvenile detention center, these criminal usually come from terrible backgrounds and broken homes. If your dad is in prison and your mom is on crack and she can't get it together long enough to get you back from foster care or CPS, what kind of future do you have?

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