Wednesday, November 01, 2006

How to solve Nacogdoches' jail overcrowding problem

Some days it seems like I could write this same blog post about most of the county jails in Texas, but today we're going to pick on Nacogdogches. An article in the Nacogdoches Sentinel ("Jail overcrowding forces sheriff to look elsewhere," Oct. 26) complained that the county has been shipping excess prisoners to a neighboring county, but now its jail is full too.
"We're just in a pretty tough situation, right now. We've got to either find other housing or remain out of compliance (with jail standards)," [Sheriff] Kerss said. "You can't just let them go."
That's not entirely true, though, and the fallacy behind the statement lies at the root of Nacogdoches' overincercaration problem.

Nobody is incarcerated forever in county jail. Ultimately everyone leaves, either to go home or on to go on to state prison. Like most Texas counties with overcrowded jails, most inmates in Nacogdoches haven't been convicted yet, they're sitting around waiting to go to trial.

A decade ago 30% of jail inmates statewide were incarcerated awaiting trial; today the figure is about 48%. But in Nacogdoches County, a whopping 68% of jail inmates are incarcerated awaiting trial - mostly because they couldn't make bail. Nearly half of those are misdemeanor defendants, many of whom would be released pending trial in other counties. (Source: monthly jail population report.)

Earlier this week I wrote how the same problem affects the much larger Bexar County jail. But it's even more pronounced in Nacogdoches. Just over 14% of Bexar jail inmates are incarcerated awaiting trial for a misdemeanor offense; in Nacogdoches it's more than 28%. Many of those people simply don't need to be there - the time to incarcerate most misdemeanants (certainly the non-violent ones) is AFTER they've been convicted, not before. (I know to some in law enforcement that seems like a radical concept.)

The truth is that for many low-level offenders, incarcerating them before trial may worsen public safety, especially if they lose their job because they can't go to work. Offenders' employment status is a key factor in whether or not people commit more crimes, and Texas doesn't pay enough attention to the subject. Holding low-level offenders for weeks or months before trial nearly ensures they'll be unemployed when they get out, even if they wind up sentenced to probation. At the end of the day that makes things less safe for everybody.

Several other counties big and small are addressing the same issue by using pretrial screening programs to identify low-level offenders who should be eligible for release on personal bonds. Another good option would be to follow Tyler's lead and create a day reporting center so many of those low-level offenders could be supervised in the community. For many pretrial offenders, it's not the case at all that they "can't just let them go." In fact, for some of them, the public would be safer in the long run if they did.

For a county the size of Nacogdoches, the logistics of reducing the jail population wouldn't be so hard. The bigger difficulty would be mustering the political will to go against so-called "tuff" but foolish policies that soak the taxpayers and make the public less safe.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Problem:Overcrowded prisons in America

Solution:Gently wake them up bright and early tomorrow morning and start loading them up on military cargo planes and send them to the front lines in IRAQ!
Issue them a football helmet and a baseball bat...problem solved:)