Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Bexar Commissioner responds on tent city trial balloon

Speaking of comments received yesterday, I don't think I've ever gotten a nicer note from a politician I'd criticized than from Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson, one of the San Antonio pols who visited Arizona to see Maricopa County's tent city jail. I'd called the visit right before the election "grandstanding" in this post.

To his credit, Adkisson didn't take it personally. Here's the reply he left in the comments:
Dear Scott,

Thanks for your coverage on the tent camps, but very importantly, for your discourse on the critical issue of incarceration in Texas.

Tent camps are wildly popular, but we have made no decision to use them in Bexar County. However, we will leave no stone unturned in an effort to stem the hemorrhaging of seemingly endless amounts of money into our jails. We currently utilize many of the drug-treatment, ELM, work-release, and mental health diverting techniques to try to do the right thing.

In fact, on October 5, 2006 we here in Bexar County received the 2006 Gold Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association for our community-based programs, specifically for an innovative system of jail diversion involving community partnerships and collaborations, which has improved services, enhanced access to and continuity of care for persons with mental illnesses.

Finally, I have been working on this for practically all eight years of my time in office as Commissioner. Just because tent camps are "hot" doesn't mean I need this for illigitimate reasons, such as the election.

Much more could be said about the many challenging issues regarding jail population and I look forward to weighing in on the solutions. I regard Grits for Breakfast as one of the most welcome and helpful vehicles we elected officials have for understanding the problems and their solutions.

Tommy Adkisson
Commissioner, Precint 4
Bexar County
Awww, man, now I feel bad. I mean, the tent city is still a really stupid idea, but what a nice note! I think part of the reason I was so hard on this election-season trial balloon is precisely that I've been under the impression Bexar County really is looking seriously for solutions, though I understand the local district judges haven't always been very cooperative.

If you're looking for better options, Commissioner, let me suggest where you really need to visit is Houston: Bexar should mimic Harris County's system of pretrial services (described in this Grits post), which identifies likely candidates for release on personal bond instead of requiring bail from often indigent defendants. There are a lot of things I don't like about the Harris County justice system, but their pretrial screening system, IMO, might be the best in the state.

What kind of difference could it make? As of October 1, 2006, 57% of Bexar County's inmate population was sitting in jail awaiting trial. By contrast, Harris County had 42%. (Source: Monthly TX jail population report.) That's a direct result of Harris' pretrial screening program and greater use by judges of personal bonds for low-level offenses.

Even more significantly, right now Bexar is holding too many misdemeanor defendants before trial. Six hundred inmates in the Bexar County Jail on October 1 were being held awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges. By contrast, in much larger Harris County whose jail is more than twice as big as Bexar's, just 412 misdemeanants were awaiting trial. Do all those in Bexar really need to be there?

These data tell me there's plenty of room for Bexar to fix its overincarceration problems with the tools presently available to them. They don't need to build a new jail and they don't need to build a tent city. They need to manage the local justice system more intelligently.

I appreciate Commissioner Adkisson's flattering response. Thank you! And good luck trying to fix this mess once the election's over.

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