Wednesday, September 06, 2006

McLennan County sees only big-government solutions to jail overcrowding

More jails, more jails or renting more jail space were the options McLennan County Commissioners were told they face regarding their currently overcrowded county hotel. (Waco is the McLennan County seat.)

According to the Waco Herald Tribune ("County jail overcrowded again," Sept. 6):
Commissioners learned Friday that Lynch had moved 15 female inmates from the State Highway 6 jail to the downtown county-owned jail that is leased to CiviGenics, a private detention company that primarily houses federal detainees.

Lynch was forced to move the women after the female population hit 141, 45 more than the county jail capacity for women. The approaching Labor Day weekend was also a factor in the move.

“We freed up two eight-man tanks with moving the ladies over, but we filled that up Friday evening,” Lynch said.

The total jail population Tuesday was 884. The capacity is 931, but when the inmate population gets more than 90 percent capacity, or 837, it creates problems for jailers to properly classify and house the inmates, said Lynch and Capt. Johnny Mynar.

If the commissioners took a closer look at the numbers, though, they'd see that McLennan County is holding many misdemeanor and low-level felony defendants in jail who in other counties might be freed on personal bond pending trial. By releasing more of those defendants before trial, taxpayers wouldn't foot the bill for their room and board for months and they don't lose their job because they're in jail for so long. That's especially important if they wind up sentenced to probation - they'll need the job to pay probation fees.

McLennan might need more jail space in the medium to long run, but local officials have plenty of discretion to manage current problems, if they handle their business smartly. According to the August 1 report on jail populations from the Texas Commission on jail standards, about half the local jail population was being held in jail pretrial, including 122 misdemeanor defendants and 55 state jail felons (many of the latter low-level <1g drug possession cases).

Commissioners should consider expanding pretrial screening programs, whose evaluations could be used by judges to identify good candidates for release on personal bond. Ask the folks in Harris (Houston), Travis (Austin) or even Erath (Stephenville) Counties how to do it, if you need help with the technicals.

Even people who've run afoul of the law need to be able to earn a living and support their families. There are better ways to reduce jail overcrowding pressures than paying for more and more jail beds. As the pretrial release officer in Erath County summed it up, “It’s important to get these people back to work as fast as we can — instead of just allowing them to sit in jail at taxpayer’s expense."

No comments: