Thursday, November 02, 2006

Bexar Jail Administrator: Stop arrests for nonviolent misdemeanors, strengthen probation

Here's another response to my recent column on Bexar County Jail overcrowding, this time from the fellow running the place, Bexar Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight. (Bexar County commissioner Tommy Adkisson also responded here.) McKnight shares some ideas on reducing the local jail population he hasn't been able to convince Bexar officials to implement.

I'm glad to find that the internal debate on the topic has been more substantive than the politicized public version. I'm also glad to see him concerned with the collateral consequences of incarceration, particularly for misdemeanants. You just don't hear enough said on that important topic. With his permission, I reprint Mr. McKnight's email here.

Mr. Henson:

I enjoy your blogs.

I am the Bexar County Jail Administrator, a master peace officer, lawyer, former 1st Assistant Criminal District Attorney and Certified Criminal Law Specialist. Over the past two years I have suggested the police quit arresting non-violent misdemeanants, file the cases at large and summons the defendant to court. I have also suggested that instead of sentencing misdemeanants to jail as a condition of probation that residential probation facilities be established to detain misdemeanants as a condition of probation.

First of all, residential probation facilities are not under the control of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Therefore, staffing, detainee living space, air conditioning, special dietary concerns and color television not a concern. The facilities would be less expensive to build and operate. They would be under the control of adult probation and therefore under the control of the sentencing judge.

If a prisoner is sentenced to jail, the Sheriff and the Code of Criminal Procedure control. A prisoner can sit in his or her cell, cannot be made to work, and as long as there are no disciplinary problems, will get maximum good time credit. On a 180 day sentence that means release in 60 days. As a condition of probation they still don’t have to do anything while they serve their sentence. Either way, the taxpayer picks up the bill.

If assigned to a probation facility, they probationer can be made to work, pick up trash in the park, clean the cemetery, etc. They can be required to attend classes on anger management, trades and job skills, get a GED, learn the evils of drugs and alcohol and pay their own way. The savings to the taxpayer could be enormous.

We recognize that the honest citizens want the bad guy locked up and off the street. We recognize that Judges have to be fair and impartial, but they also have to be law and order minded or they won’t get reelected. How much better could it be than to be a Judge and be able to tell a honest citizen taxpayer that they have control over the convicted misdemeanant, they have put the misdemeanant off the street in a residential probation facility, that the judge is working the misdemeanant’s butt off and making the misdemeanant pay for the privilege of being in the facility? Probation is voluntary and also limits county exposure to nasty and expensive 1983 and other civil rights lawsuits. More savings to the taxpayer.

Take a scenario: An officer, several miles from the local metropolitan jail, makes a traffic stop because a driver failed to stop at a stop sign before exiting a parking lot on to a public street. This could be a situation where the driver is polite, admits error , passes the attitude test, gets a warning and goes on his way…or not. In our scenario, the officer approaches the vehicle and smells the odor of freshly burned marijuana. The officer asks the drive out of the car. On the console in plain view is a half ounce of marijuana in a clear plastic baggy. Now the officer arrests the driver for the marijuana and puts him the back of his patrol car, calls dispatch for a tow truck and starts his offense report. The tow truck arrives 45 minutes later, the vehicle is inventoried, hooked up and 15 minutes later is off to the impound lot. The officer then begins his journey to the jail to book the driver. It is now rush hour and the trip takes one hour. The officer completes his report, puts the prisoner’s property in the property room and drives to the narcotics office to log and secure the marijuana. The officer can now return to patrol; except that his shift is over and his replacement is waiting at the station which is another 20 minutes drive away and there are 10 citizens calls for service waiting.

Our arrested person gets interviewed by pretrial services and does not have enough qualifiers for immediate release on personal bond. He is booked into jail. After completing all the intake and screening steps in the jail he finally gets a chance to call a family member to come and post bond. Unfortunately, our arrested person was on his way to work when stopped. He missed his shift and has been fired.

Consequently, he doesn’t have enough money to get his car out of impound and it is sold at auction. His wife is embarrassed by the whole ordeal and divorces him, taking their two minor children with her. Because he has no transportation and a criminal case pending, he has trouble finding suitable employment as an unskilled laborer. He finally pleads guilty and because he has no prior criminal record, gets deferred adjudication. He falls behind in his child support and is arrested on an Attorney General’s child support case and put back in jail.

Now, the children are on welfare, paid for by the taxpayer. The deadbeat dad is in jail, paid for by the taxpayer. The AG and the judicial system assigned to hear the case are paid for by the taxpayer. All because someone got arrested for a non-violent, Class B misdemeanor. Some people would say he got what he deserved. What about the taxpayer? Did they get what they deserved? Were the best interests of the criminal justice system, society, and the children served?

Friend, there has to be a better way.

I find myself a bit uncomfortable with the thought that the purpose of building residential probation facilities would be to avoid regulation by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards - I don't think poorer incarceration standards are a good solution to high jail costs. But I sure agree with his analysis of how misdemeanor cases can cause someone's life to spiral out of control - in his example involving marijuana possession, the state's response creates more problems for society than the offender ever caused. There does indeed have to be a better way.


Anonymous said...

Actually, he seems to only advocate residential probation "instead of sentencing misdemeanants to jail as a condition of probation." So since we're talking about folks that would otherwise be incarcerated in the jail, and since probation is voluntary, that's actually probably not that bad - maybe the equivalent of a halfway house with more structure and services, or something along those lines.

I can't believe a Texas jail administrator, much less a former DA said those things about not arresting people for pot and nonviolent misdemeanors!!! I guess when you see this crap every day, after a while reality sets in. I wonder if cops and DAs in San Antonio agree with him?

Anonymous said...

Great Blog.I applaud the Jail Adminstrator,who is taking a stand,He realizes that so much time & money is being wasted on non-violent offenses,serious crime is going un-checked.Who would you rather have in jail-the armed robber,who pistolwhips you over 2.00;or some kid who`s just smoked a joint?Common Sense People !

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