Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Brazos inmates needlessly sleeping on jail floor

"It's pretty common to have people sleeping on the floor" in the Brazos County Jail says Sheriff Chris Kirk, who with the county commissioners hopes to spend upwards of $30 million to build an addition to the jail . Like many other jails in the state, the Brazos jail has trouble handling its regular weekend surge. Reported the Bryan College Station Eagle ("Brazos jail is at capacity," Feb. 4):
In the middle of the week, the jail population usually hovers around its 546-person capacity. That number rises to more than 580 during the weekends, Sims said. The jail population reached its all-time high in July when 601 inmates were confined.
County Judge Randy Sims declared, "My biggest scare is that the bond issue will not pass," Sims said. "What will we do then?" My answer: Use your noggin. There are quite a few other ways to skin this cat.

Indeed, Brazos County's Jail overcrowding is basically a self-inflicted wound caused by politicians who'd rather be "tuff" than sensible about crime and punishment. If the pols put jail bonds on the ballot, I hope Brazos follows the lead of Smith County voters and rejects the new jail.

Here's the key thing to remember: Like most Texas counties with overcrowded jails, most inmates in Brazos County haven't been convicted yet, they're sitting around waiting to go to trial. (Nobody is incarcerated forever in county jail. Ultimately everyone leaves, either to go home or on to go on to state prison.)

A decade ago 30% of jail inmates statewide were incarcerated awaiting trial; today that figure is about 48%. But in Brazos County, a whopping 65% of jail inmates are incarcerated awaiting trial - mostly because they couldn't make bail. (Source: monthly jail population report.) Many of these would be released pending trial in other counties. More than 100 jail inmates out of the 547 in the jail on Jan. 1 were misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial, while another 67 were so-called state jail felons (mostly low-level drug and property crimes), and 186 were higher-level pretrial felons.

From these numbers, I don't think Brazos County remotely needs a new jail right now. (Just reducing pretrial detention levels to the statewide average would free up nearly 100 beds.) What it needs is better jail and court management. A number of counties have created public defender offices to move cases through the system more quickly and eliminate unnecessary pretrial detention, but even that's just one possible solution. As for other options, I've written so much on this topic I think I'll just quote what I said when writing about Nacogdoches' similar jail overcrowding woes:
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.

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