Wednesday, December 27, 2006

County judge's 'white paper' says pretrial detention too high in Nacogdoches

Does Nacogdoches need to expand its county jail? According to outgoing County Judge Sue Kennedy, "Not until we answer the next question: Why do we have jail overcrowding?" In a white paper (doc) Grits received under a Public Information Act request, Judge Kennedy wrote that:
We have been very reluctant to spend money on a jail expansion because, after the initial construction cost, we would burden the local tax payers with a significant YEARLY increase in operational cost. Using the 2007 jail budget as the base, it would cost approximately $750,000 more a year to operate an additional 96 beds. This kind of commitment can not be made without a detailed study to find other options.

Exactly. That's the aspect of jail building that Harris County officials and Houston Chronicle editorial writers seem to be ignoring: It's not the cost of building new jails and prisons that should most concern taxpayers, but long-term operating costs. Wise governments don't assume such burdens without evaluating alternatives.

Kennedy suggests a formal evaluation process be established to study the causes of overcrowding more thoroughly before any construction plans are developed or bond packages proposed. While Kennedy said she is "confident that there [are] even more creative options that can be applied to this problem," she identified two categories of inmates who could be targeted for jail population reduction: defendants awaiting trial (68% of the local jail population), and convicted inmates awaiting transfer to state prisons (11% of the jail population).

Only the Texas Legislature could help with expediting transfers of inmates to prison faster - with prisons full and the state renting extra beds already, the state's basically in the same situation on that score as the counties. But local officials, especially judges and prosecutors, can have a big impact on the number of defendants awaiting trial, especially for low-level offenders. (See prior Grits coverage of pretrial detention.)

As Judge Kennedy correctly identifies, no single entity can control how many inmates are in the jail. Instead, a dynamic system operated by poorly coordinated, occasionally competing interests drive jail numbers up or down. Wrote Kennedy:

County jail population is effected by the following decision makers who have certain roles of power, authority and responsibility: state legislature, Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Texas Commission on Jail Standards, local judges, local JP’s, prosecutors, sheriff, arresting officers, probation, and parole and, to a small extent; defense attorneys and bondsmen.

She suggests all these actors, particularly the local folks, participate in a "due diligence" study to seek alternatives to building more jail space. In many counties that's a process that's never occurred: 'Jail 'em and Build 'em' have been the watchwords for many a year, with taxpayers footing the ever-expanding cost.

Hopefully Judge Kennedy's successor will follow her advice and exercise caution in the face of budget-busting jail proposals. She's right: There are better ways, if officials will look for them.

See Judge Kennedy's "white paper" (doc) and related Grits coverage:

No comments: