Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Before building jails, counties need to address pretrial detention

No sooner had I written up the county judge's proposals to resolve jail overcrowding in Nacogdoches, than I see their neighbors in Walker County (Huntsville is the county seat) also hope to build a new jail, adding 300-500 beds to their current jail capacity of 162.

Officials in Walker would do well to heed Nacogdoches' Judge Kennedy's advice and look at why their jail is full. The tools to solve Walker's overincarceration problem lie entirely within the purview of local officials. Reported the Huntsville Item ("County jail staff keep watch on overcrowding," Dec. 21):
“The biggest impact we see is from Friday evening through Monday morning,” [Sheriff Clint] McRae said. “We could actually face an overpopulation issue at any time during the weekend.

‘We may go into a weekend with 145 or 150 inmates and come back on Monday morning and it’s liable to be 175 or 180 people ... well over our capacity.
But is the only way to solve that problem really to build 500 new beds? I don't think so. Judge Kennedy in Nacogdoches understood one big missing piece in the Walker Sheriff's analysis: Too many people in that baseline of everyday prisoners are low-level offenders incarcerated awaiting trial.

A decade ago, 30% of jail inmates statewide were incarcerated awaiting trial; today the figure is about 48%. In Walker County as of December 1st, 101 jail inmates (2/3 of the 152 incarcerated that day) were there awaiting trial, 42 of them for misdemeanors (Source: Statewide county jail population report).

So more than 25% of Walker County jail inmates are incarcerated awaiting trial for misdemeanors! Compare that to Harris County (Houston is the county seat), where only 4% of inmates fit that category as of December 1.

Simply reducing the percentage of pretrial detainees to the statewide average would slash Walker's baseline by 27 inmates, which is about the size of the Sheriff's weekend surge. With more resources devoted to pretrial screening, Walker County should be able to get even lower than that. If Walker jailed misdemeanants pretrial at the same rate as in Houston, the total number of jail inmates would decline by 35, or 22%.

Further reductions would be possible, for example, if the county created a public defender office to move each weekend's cases through the system more quickly. (That would probably save them money on indigent defense costs, too.) Alternatively, jail administrators in Midland and San Antonio have suggested that officers should issue a summons instead of arresting certain low-level offenders. Progressive sanctions for nonviolent probationers could reduce the number of defendants incarcerated for probation revocations. There are actually many ways to skin this particular cat.

Just like in Tyler, where voters rejected jail bonds and officials are demanding alternatives to jail building, Walker County residents have more options than the ones being portrayed to them. Sheriff McRae certainly can't fix the problem on his own, but neither should Walker taxpayers suffer unnecessary costs for increasing jail capacity by up to 500 beds just because local officials can't work together to find less expensive options.