Friday, May 26, 2006

Tyler judge: End jail overcrowding with community supervision of nonviolent offenders

Among Texas jails, Tyler's (Smith County) is the most overcrowded in the state after Houston, but two weeks ago voters turned down bond proposals for two new jail facilities by margins of 63% and 86%. What happens now?

Tyler district judge Cynthia Kent is shopping a plan to reduce incarceration pressures by releasing non-violent offenders and supervising them through a "Day Reporting Center" ("
Judge reacts to 'naysayers'," Tyler Morning Telegraph, May 26). There, offenders would "receive drug and alcohol treatment, job training and day labor jobs," without the county paying to house them. The plan would cost $350,000 in the first year, compared with $3 million annually the county currently pays to house offenders in rented jailspace.

Perhaps predictably, the local police chief and the Mayor accused her in the paper of being soft on crime, but Kent fired back with a hotly worded letter that the Telegraph
put online (pdf). She called the Mayor's criticisms "very close to pandering" coming from a licensed attorney, especially since he hadn't seen the plan. "The proposal, which you object to sight unseen, is not a perfect solution," she wrote, "any more than building a jail bed for everyone who writes a hot check, fails to pay their child support, or using marijuana or a controlled substance." Judge Kent told the Tyler Telegraph:

"This is just a proposal and nothing is set in concrete at this time. If the commissioners approved this program, then it would be done on a case-by-case basis and not a blanket policy for these type of nonviolent offenders," she said.

Judge Kent said the first people to be considered for the program would be those jailed for nonpayment of child support.

"On April 17 there were 90 people in jail with their most serious offense being not paying their court-ordered child support. This plan is to reduce the jail population by 200 per day, and these people would be ideal candidates," she said.

But the judge also stated that each case would be reviewed carefully with the public's safety in mind.

She said those being approved for release would have to report daily to the Day Reporting Center and gain employment. Those needing counseling for alcohol of drug problems would get that help.

The next group she said would be considered would be those in jail for fraud, theft by check, forgery and credit card abuse, "even repeat offenders."

Swindle said he would not comment on Kent's letter, but said the business community of Tyler and Smith County has lost thousands of dollars to forgers, credit card abusers and those committing fraud and theft by check, and he did not want those people back on the street.

Judge Kent responded that Swindle's statement was "painting with a broad brush," adding that not all offenders would repeat their crimes.

Another worry for law enforcement officials and the mayor was whether the program's participants would follow the rules and report to the center faithfully.

"Are some of these people not going to show up? Well, yes, there will be some that don't show up, but I believe most will and the community will benefit from the program," Judge Kent said.

The judge said the program could save the county millions of dollars each year until the jail situation was remedied.

"This is up to the commissioners to decide and it is a different program than we've ever had in Smith County. But if people are too scared and they listen to the naysayers, then we just won't do it," she said.

Judge Kent invited the mayor and police chief to meet with her to discuss the program in detail so they could be better informed.

Even if voters had passed the jail bonds, Smith County would need a short-term solution until new facilities were built. Kent's plan would relieve the burden on taxpayers and maximize public safety by changing nonviolent offenders' behavior instead of keeping them "off the streets." That's better for offenders, crime victims, and for the taxpayers, too. Judge Kent deserves a lot of credit for focusing on solutions when her critics offer only complaints.


Anonymous said...

This is such a wonderful and reasonable idea. I am all for ensuring public safety through the incarceration of those that pose a threat to the public. From the sound of it, these people that would be considered for the day reporting center are not violent offenders but are in jail solely for failure to pay child support or for theft by check etc. It seems to me that it would be much better to have them out there working to pay off their debts rather than sitting in a jail in which we do not have the room for them and costing the county millions of dollars a year. Just a thought!

Anonymous said...

I think the Judge Cynthia Kent is on to something. Seems like Skeen and all the other Judges there in Smith County want to lock everyone up that has ever made a mistake and throw away the key. I believe that part of the reason for them doing that is so the jails would be overcrowded and give them more leverage to try and persuade the tax payers to vote yes on the new jail. As a taxpayer in Smith County I will NEVER vote yes to a new jail as long as they are going to use my tax dollars to lock everyone up for something like failure to pay child support, these people do need to be punished, but if there is a more economical way than I support going that route or at least try it out.

So as long as Smith County wants to continue to lock up every Tom, Dick, and Harry for sneezing wrong then the jails will always be overcrowded. Tax payers need to realize that we need to pressure these Judges into being diligent with our tax dollars! Seems like its misuse of tax payer's dollars to me.

Anonymous said...

My son is one of those tom dick or harrys. We have been thru the programs.... ALL BECAUSE OF ONE NIGHT IN 2007.. Never been in trouble before and now caught up in this screwed up system. gone to pick up a girl what should of been criminal mischief in considered a 3rd degreee felony in your system...

Johnna said...

Smith county needs a lot of stuff. The system is absolutely dysfunctional. They need many programs. By supplying a rehabilitation center for drug and alcohol offenders, would reduce the amount of over crowded jails plus reduce repeat offenders, and save money. My husband is an alcoholic, the state nor federal system provided any rehab not even AA while in the system; therefore, gave him no tools when returning to society. Returning to society is very difficult for a felon. First, finding a job. Secondly, the system expects you to be able to go to parole during the middle of the day (which normally employers are not so understanding). In addition, they expect the felon to be able to have transportation to get to and from work, parole and classes with no license; therefore, you are having to rely of other people---which is difficult because they have jobs, and responsibilties as well which tends to prevent more hardship to the felon or offender... Its way more difficult than the laws think..they set the offenders up to fail....when a simple solution was a leg band and a drivers licence....but most of all...REHAB.... And here we are again facing the same tragedy--and knowing no help will be provided to this time either...A lot of time, money and lives are wasted because no rehab is provided to alcohol and drug offenders, and they make it difficult when they are released to where it becomes overwhelming to the offenders....these persons have a disease, a sickness, and simply need to be treated..
.which would save taxpayers money, decrease over crowded jails, and reduce repeat offenders. The answer is so obvious....and its sad system does not see it.