Friday, January 13, 2006

Bexar jail overcrowding calls for fresh solutions

Lucius Cincinnatus at the Jeffersonian emails to ask Grits' opinion on the Bexar County Jail's overincarceration crisis, described yesterday in the San Antonio Express News ("Crowded jail still vexes Bexar commissioners," Jan. 12). They're paying six figures for a new bureaucratic position to plan and coordinate housing for the jail population, but I don't think it will make a big difference without other changes.

For starters, those looking to reduce jail overcrowding should look to suggestions in
Grits' "best practices" post on the topic. Several of those ideas apply to Bexar County's situation.

Bexar's failure to release more offenders on personal bond awaiting trial stands out as a big subject to address. Offhand, looking at the most
recent report (pdf, Dec. 1, 2005) on Bexar County's jail population, 2,326 out of 3,930 inmates, or more than 59%, were incarcerated awaiting trial -- 641 of them misdemeanants and many more non-violent, low-level felons. By contrast, in much-larger Harris County, the number of misdemeanants in the jail is just over half that figure. So Bexar's incarcerating a much larger proportion of low-level offenders before trial than its larger cousin.

That's partially because in Bexar County, unlike Harris, the pretrial services division doesn't interview defendants unless they request an appointed lawyer (see the
Bexar court rules, pdf), meaning that they don't screen many people who could be eligible for pre-trial release. Personal bonds should be offered based on defendants' relative dangerousness and likelihood to abscond, not the ability to pay a bail bondsman -- only screening formally indigent defendants excludes many from possibly receiving such bonds. Granting them more broadly could significantly reduce the jail population without harming public safety.

Bexar commissioners should also consider creating a
public defenders office, which would streamline everything considerably for indigent defendants and help process cases faster and more cheaply. That's something the commissioners court could do on its own with help from state grants. [Correction: terms of the state grant mandate judges' involvement, more here.] In Hidalgo County the new public defenders office already has lessened jail overcrowding woes.

of the commissioners court's frustration is that they don't control a lot of the system. Reported the Express News:

Commissioners have no authority over other elected officials, and several county offices affect who gets in and out of jail, including the sheriff, courts, pretrial services and the district attorney. Dealing with the problem is a matter of ongoing negotiations.

District courts administrator Melissa Barlow Fischer said later that commissioners' remarks blindsided district judges.

"The district judges have been concentrating on jail population for the past year at the request of commissioners," Fischer said, adding that Adkisson had recently thanked them for their work. "It's a very complex issue, and we know that Commissioners Court understands that.

"We are looking forward to working with Mr. Charlton to find some answers," she added

I hope that's true because judges are critical to reducing jail overcrowding. Every one of those 641 misdemeanant defendants in the Bexar jail, for example, is there because a Bexar county judge decided to require them to pay bail instead of releasing them on personal bond. Even with more pretrial services recommendations for personal bonds, only judges could decide to do things differently.

Similarly, judges could start utilizing
early probation release to reduce jail intake in the medium run. They should also quit requiring drug tests as bail conditions, since as I wrote in my "best practices" piece, "If you're not treating the addiction, the only point of drug testing is increased incarceration, and when jails are full we need to save the space for more dangerous offenders, not mere drug users." Nobody can make them do it -- Bexar judges would have to decide they wanted to reduce overcrowding and were willing to take leadership. Obviously, it's easier for judges to lock 'em up and pass on the problem to somebody else, but that's how Bexar got into this pickle.

Finally, local officials worried about overcrowded jails should show up at the Texas Legislature in 2007 to support a
stronger probation system and targeted penalty reductions to reduce jail populations. In the big picture, Texas needs to focus criminal justice resources where they most benefit public safety, and quit expanding the system for expansion's sake.

1 comment:

Christina said...

One of the things that I strongly believe will help the overcrowding situation as well is the fact that child support violators are being held six months. They need to be able to understand their obligations be out of the jail and pay what they need to pay. The six month hold is ridiculous considering that they are supposed to meeting their financial responsibilities to their children if the dead beat parent has not yet been in and out they should be given about three opportunities before they have to serve a six month sentence.