Friday, May 26, 2006

More on Tyler's alternatives to jail overcrowding

Following up on this morning's post about Smith County's jail overcrowding crisis, I called Judge Cynthia Kent in Tyler to ask for more detail about her alternative proposal to building another jail. She graciously returned my call and forwarded a detailed press release explaining her plan to reduce jail overcrowding.

Judge Kent pointed out that with the exception of Tyler's Mayor and the police chief, the-still-evolving plan largely represents a consensus among local judges and the criminal justice community, not just her own ideas. Some supporters are skeptical, she said, but given the county's limited options are willing to try it - even the District Attorney attended a Tuesday press confernece announcing the proposals. Because of Judge Kent's widely respected 21 years on the bench, she probably enjoys the
gravitas needed to endure these slings and arrows. It's good she's taking the lead.

If the proposal goes through Smith County would create some version of a drug court, she said, and Judge Kent would run it herself in the initial phases. She expects quick results.
Because Smith County is spending so much on renting outside jail space, about $3 million annually, Judge Kent estimates the plan would pay for itself in 43 days. Here's the full text of the judge's detailed press release:

DATE: May 23, 2006

RE: Jail Overcrowding in Smith County

CONTACT: Judge Cynthia Kent

On May 13, 2006, the voters of Smith County sent a loud and clear message that the two proposals for a new $75 million to $83 million dollar jail facility were unacceptable. This resounding defeat of the two suggested proposals placed on the ballot by a majority of the Commissioner’s Court have resulted in members of that same Court calling for a meeting to draft a new proposal to put on the November ballot for another jail facility.

The real message of the May 13th bond election is that the Smith County Commissioners must develop a Master Plan and a multi-step plan focusing on a real downtown solution. The Commissioners should not rush to put yet another multimillion dollar jail proposal on the ballot.

For the last two years, the majority of the Commissioners have looked at downtown only as an afterthought. The voters have clearly told the Commissioners that they want the jail to be located downtown. Therefore, the Commissioners should spend the time to really look at the needs of downtown. It is time to come up with an interim solution that will give the Commissioners the time needed to develop a real downtown solution.

The local judges, district attorney, defense attorneys and Mr. Joel Baker today are offering the framework of a plan to try and safely deal with the jail overcrowding with an incarceration alternative program. This interim solution will enable the Commissioners to immediately start gathering information to begin the process needed for the 2007 Smith County Commissioners’ Court to review and develop a plan to take to the voters next year. This incarceration alternative plan will enable the Commissioners to take the time to address the shortcomings of the last two jail bond proposals; that is, to look at the County’s long term needs and to develop a downtown solution that meets all of the County’s needs.

The landslide vote rejecting both of the proposals developed by the Smith County Commissioners’ Court calls for a new approach to the jail overcrowding situation, not just a rehash of the rejected proposals. Just juggling the numbers but not rethinking the approach to our facility needs is nothing but putting lipstick on a pig and will result in a new chorus of that old country western song, “What part of No do you not understand?”

The landslide vote rejecting both of the proposals developed by the Smith County Commissioners’ Court calls for a new approach to the jail overcrowding situation, not just a rehash of the rejected proposals. Just juggling the numbers but not rethinking the approach to our facility needs is nothing but putting lipstick on a pig and will result in a new chorus of that old country western song, “What part of No do you not understand?”An initial approach should include:

  1. Conducting a careful dialogue with the members of the business community, public officials, courthouse and jail employees, concerned citizens in Smith County who can provide input as to the needs for a master plan for Smith County government facilities. This certainly can start with a hastily called meeting on May 31st but should definitely involve a number of working meetings over the next few months to carefully discuss and analyze the problems and all possible solutions to the facility problems of Smith County.
  2. Honestly listen to the needs of the county officeholders and employees.
  3. Assembling detailed information on how other counties in Texas and other states have dealt with jail overcrowding, courthouse and jail facility construction and design, and incarceration alternative programs.
  4. Assembling the above- referenced information for the 2007 Commissioners’ Court to develop a cost effective master plan for court facilities and a phased- in approach to providing Smith County with the appropriate locations and designs for our governmental and criminal justice needs.
  5. Developing a consensus plan.
It should be obvious that Smith County will need a temporary program to help alleviate the overcrowding crise’s in Smith County so that the new Commissioners’ Court in January 2007 can develop their plan for facilities needs, dialogue with the citizens of Smith County regarding their plan. The current Commissioners’ Court should not try to rush another bond proposal on the November ballot and saddle the newly elected commissioners’ court with another bond proposal failure. The new Commissioners’ Court should only put a new bond proposal on the ballot after a comprehensive and honest disclosure to the public about the real needs and actual costs for making Smith County a safer community.

The local judges, district attorney, and private attorneys are today proposing several ideas which could help ease the overcrowding crise’s, at least temporarily, and perhaps over a longer period of time, and still maintain the focus on public safety in the enforcement of our penal laws.

The programs include:

1. An Incarceration Alternative Program which includes a Community Supervision Day Reporting Center.

Nonviolent offenders who have committed a drug offense or property crime would be referred to the Day Reporting Center for supervision and rehabilitation services. They will report each morning at a designated time and remain until late in the afternoon or evening. They would spend their evenings at home, instead of in jail, but must be at the Day Reporting Center each day.

At the Day Reporting Center, these offenders would participate in:

A. Drug/alcohol rehabilitation counseling through a licensed professional counselor hired by Smith County Commissioners to work full time in that Day Reporting Center.
B. Receive job training and job counseling services onsite and be assigned for job interviews.
C. Receive G.E.D. training.

D. Receive life skills training onsite.

E. Be available and participate in job pool assignments and day labor jobs.

F. Receive supervision in taking medication for mental illness under a program to be developed and manned by the Andrews Center (which will be asked to participate in a program to expedite the diagnosis and treatment of mentally ill nonviolent offenders).

G. Participate in drug and alcohol screening tests.

H. Submit to an electronic monitoring program and drug patch program while assigned to the Day Reporting Center.

Smith County officials will develop working relationships with various employers in Smith County to encourage partnering with the Day Reporting Center as a resource for temporary workers as part of their community/industry involvement to help reduce jail overcrowding and encourage rehabilitation and reintegration of offenders into our community.

This program could initially utilize space in the basement of the courthouse, in the old commissioners’ court facilities, or in vacant space in the newly remodeled Ferguson Building County Annex until the viability of the program can be evaluated for more permanent quarters. The Commissioners would have to fund the employment of additional probation officers, a secretary, a security officer, a drug counselor and other supply and equipment needs for the Day Reporting Center. Mr. Gerald Hayden is currently working with Judge Kent on proposals for the personnel and funding needs of such a program.

Targeted defendants for this program initially would include persons in custody for refusing to pay their child support, theft by check cases, credit card and debit card abuse cases, thefts, forgery cases, other nonviolent offenses, and drug cases. It is possible that 200 currently incarcerated individuals may be eligible for consideration in this type of program.

2. The local judges, district attorney, and justices of the peace will be invited to a brainstorming meeting to discuss general issues involved with setting bail and the amounts which might be considered in nonviolent offenses, particularly misdemeanors and state jail felony cases. Judge Kent has offered to host this meeting on Thursday, June 1, 2006 at noon in the 114th Judicial District Court and have lunches brought in for the meeting.

Reducing the amount of required bail, pending case disposition, could assist in maintaining a reduced jail census.

3. Develop a temporary program where a district judge and a county court at law judge will hold magistrate warnings for the misdemeanor and felony arrests the day and night before. This will help expedite setting bail, assess counsel needs, and move cases quickly toward dispositions. The District Attorney will assign one experienced prosecutor to be present at the next day dockets to help assess the case and discuss expedited case disposition with defendants or their counsel. If the defendant and prosecutor are in a position to dispose of the case, the case may be pled immediately in front of the magistrate judge who also exercises jurisdiction in that case. State jail felony cases can be pled on an information with a waiver of indictment and waiver of jury trial. Misdemeanors can be pled on an information.

This type of expedited case disposition could result in quicker referral to rehabilitation programs for nonviolent offenders and maintain a lower incarceration rate for Smith County.

4. One district judge would host a drug court concept and handle, by assignment, all misdemeanors, state jail felony, and third degree felony drug charge cases. Defendants can elect to be referred to a drug court disposition by filing a written election within ten (10) days of their arrest. Upon magistration, the day after their arrest, they will be informed of the drug court program with an opt-in form provided to the defendant. If they do not opt into the program, their case will be assigned to one of the district or county courts at law on the normal rotation basis.

Those defendants who opt into the drug court will plead guilty, receive a deferred probation sentence and be subject to the continuum of sanctions for violations and drug court conditions of probation. The judge will use creative incarceration alternative and rehabilitation programs for these defendants and personally monitor the progress of the defendant to recover and reintegration into society.

There are a few of these drug courts around the nation. Although these programs are labor intensive and have mixed success, the programs seem to depend on the intensity of the efforts made to monitor, rehabilitate and educate these defendants. The use of the Day Reporting Center may be an instrumental element of the success of this type of sentencing philosophy.

5. Develop the Day Reporting Center or community service programs to be utilized for working off fines and fees in lieu of incarceration. This would be very important for municipal court and misdemeanor cases.

While these programs would have to be subject to constant reevaluation by the district attorney, local attorneys, and the judges for effectiveness in maintaining a reduced jail population in Smith County while still having the primary focus of the criminal justice system in the protection of the public, they may help temporarily relieve the overcrowding cris’s. If the programs are successful, they may even provide long-term relief to the exploding jail and prison populations of Smith County offenders.

Even with the development of these Incarceration Alternative Programs, Smith County must develop a master plan for the courts, support offices, sheriff, probation department, and jail facilities. Judge Cynthia Kent suggest that any master facilities plan must include:

  1. A downtown jail site which connects with the current jail and current courthouse facilities. This must be designed to be expandable in the future for additional bed space.
  2. Develop a plan to upgrade our existing minimum security facility and possible expand this location.
  3. Design a new criminal courts facility or new justice center to connect with the expanded downtown jail. This must include a design for future expansion and must integrate security measures into that facility.
  4. Utilize the current Smith County Courthouse as is, with only minor security improvements, until the new court facility is funded and constructed. Develop a plan to further utilize the current Smith County Courthouse to house some courts or for expansion. Any remodeling of the Smith County Courthouse could accommodate four courtrooms and integrate appropriate security corridors into the old structure.
Any rush by the Smith County Commissioner to spend five or six million dollars on the currently planned remodeling of the Smith County Courthouse is a waste of tax payer dollars, is another poorly designed plan which does not address the real needs of the community or the courts, and does little to make our citizens safe while appearing at the Smith County Courthouse.

Instead of continuing to waste taxpayer dollars, the Smith County Commissioners should look to fund a Day Reporting Center and other Incarceration Alternative Programs and allow the 2007 Smith County Commissioners’ court to decide on what master plan should be presented to the voters for their careful and educated consideration.
Judge Kent - who was sweet as Mom's apple pie on the phone, even if a little skeptical of my reasons for calling - appears to be providing important leadership in Smith County on this topic. I was utterly charmed, and impressed by her work. The first steps she's outlined would really make a big difference if the commissioners court approves them, improving public safety while reducing the burden on taxpayers.

For more on the topic, see:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Judge Kent? The 'send em down the river of no return', 'hangin judge' is now advocating alternatives to incarceration? WOW, wonders never cease ...
To the point ... no doubt about it, Smith Co needs to do something about the way they lock em up. This being the last term of the long time Sheriff may help some but not near enough and the voters have made their voices heard loud and clear but, we all know, or should, that prisons are BIG business so I don't see the fuss over a new jail, seems to me, if handled right, it would pay for itself in due time.