Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Blame game misses point on Hidalgo jail overcrowding

Commissioners in Hidalgo County say they can't find an answer to the overincarceration crisis at the county jail, but they're ignoring the most obvious solutions, instead looking for someone else to blame.

The McAllen Monitor's Victoria Hirschberg yesterday quoted officials
blaming the failure of the state prison system to pick up 37 inmates for the overstuffed status of the 1,150+ bed Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center ("Procedural kinks keep county jail packed," Oct. 24). Another 200 inmates have been convicted of felonies requiring prison time, but the county hasn't processed the necessary paperwork to send them to the state prison system.

So, inmates who are actually overdue to be transferred -- the 37 -- make up just 3 percent of those in the county jail, hardly a drop in the bucket. Even if you include the 200 inmates who aren't ready -- and it's hard to blame the state prison system for the county's failure to process cases -- the inmates Hirschberg describes make up about 20 percent of jail inmates, a sizable number but not the bulk of prisoners.

Like a
recent Grits commenter who similarly blamed rising jail healthcare costs on prison-bound inmates awaiting transfer, officials told Hirschberg that

Once an inmate is "paper-ready" — the file is completed, sent to the state and approved there — Texas law requires state criminal justice officials to pick up that inmate within 45 days.

But it’s not so simple.

In some cases, 45 days have turned into months, and as inmates sit in county jail, exacerbating an already overcrowded system, local taxpayers are picking up the tab.

Right now, there are 37 inmates who remain in the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center past their 45 days. More than 200 inmates are "paper-ready," but might not be ready for transfer into the state system. Many inmates face multiple charges and remain in Hidalgo County until their court date. Sometimes, little details like a missing signature in the packet or a mail delay can halt the process.

The state usually tends to pick up prisoners in 25 days, seldom taking the full 45, reported Hirschberg, but Hurricane Rita has temporarily clogged up the pipeline until two prison units near Beaumont come back on line.

Focusing only on those few inmates, though, ignores the most statistically significant source of Hidalgo jail overcrowding: large numbers of inmates sitting in jail pending trial. That's something the county, working with local judges, could actually do something about. With Hurricane Rita leaving prison bed space at a premium, there's no guarantee the state can pick up those 37 inmates anytime soon. But Hidalgo County can change its policies to supervise more inmates awating trial in the community instead of in jail, especially misdemenants and certain non-violent, low-level drug offenders.

If Hidalgo officials were serious about reducing jail overcrowding, they wouldn't be pointing fingers at state government. Three out of five Hidalgo jail inmates -- 61.2 percent, as of October 1 -- are there awaiting trial, not serving a sentence, compared to the statewide average of 46.6 percent, according to the monthly jail population report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. (See
current month's report.) With budget-busting jail space at a premium, that policy benefits no one but the bail bonding companies.

Officials should look to create a pre-trial screening program to advise judges setting bail when it would be appropriate to release defendants on personal bond, meaning a promise to appear rather than a "cash bond" where defendants must post bail. Such assessments can reduce county jail populations without harming public safety. In Harris County, for example, "likelihood of misconduct"
(defined as "nonappearance or pretrial crime") by defendants whom Pretrial Services identified as "lowest risk" was just three (3) percent, according to a recent consultant's report.

Indeed, nobody's accused the Harris County justice system of being soft on crime lately, but there just 42.5 percent of jail inmates are awaiting trial. Simply reducing the ratio of jail inmates awaiting trial to Harris County levels (keeping in mind the consultant told Harris judges they could safely reduce that number even more) would lower the Hidalgo jail population by more than 200 inmates, saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In the past, Hidalgo County judges have been sensitive about anyone examining their bail assignments, but across the state the practice is in need of serious reform. Perhaps, if local officials can stop pointing fingers at others for problems of their own making, Hidalgo County could take this opportunity to re-examine its policies regarding bail and personal bonds to make the system both cheaper and more fair.

For an overview of pretrial services programs around the country, see
this 2001 federal report (pdf), and this FAQ from the Pretrial Resource Center.

1 comment:

Writer said...

One challenge that Hidalgo County judges face is the proximity to Mexico. Many of the inmates would flee to Mexico and skip the trial altogether. This is not necessarily bad, once they skip their court date, they would have warrants out for their arrest. So long as they stay in Mexico, we would not spend money on incarceration or trials, unless they choose to come back. Perhaps the county can evaluate who the best flight risks to Mexico are and release them on personal bond. If they stay in Mexico, we save space and money. If they come back, we save space and money until they are convicted.