Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Texas Lege approved new tools to reduce jail overincarceration, if police can change thinking

Only two piece of legislation passed the 80th Texas Legislature that assist at all with the statewide county jail overincarceration crisis. Especially in the bigger cities, county jails need help now. The AP reported today ("Bexar County struggles with jail overcrowding," May 30) that the Bexar County Jail in San Antonio currently exceeds its capacity by more than 300 beds:

"Our population has bounced way up in the last 60 days, and I don't know why," County Judge Nelson Wolff said. "It's an efficiency problem, and then not treating (mentally ill or addicted) people and instead throwing them in jail."

Bexar County has grown by more than 370,000 people since the jail was built in 1988, according to U.S. Census Bureau.

Dennis McKnight, the county's jail administrator, said the overcrowding problem was "beyond critical."

The county obtained an extra 64 beds from the American Red Cross on Friday. Some inmates were already housed in nearby counties, which face their own capacity issues, McKnight said.

"At this point, everyone has a bed or will be assigned a bed," McKnight said Tuesday.

Court administrators said they were reviewing cases to determine if bonds could be reduced. The district attorney's office was also working to push cases forward.

"There's no magic bullet," said Jim Kopp, intake chief at the district attorney's office. "It's just constant work."

McKnight said the county needs to address overcrowding by either considering a new facility or a "complete change in thinking as to who gets arrested and why."

"Because frankly, I've pulled all the rabbits out of my hat," McKnight said.

The brightest spot for the Bexar County Jail lies in a piece of legislation passed that, as McKnight suggested, could help spawn a "complete change in thinking as to who gets arrested and why," but it would require cooperation with local law enforcement to accomplish. Rep. Jerry Madden's HB 2391 (discussed by Grits here) would give police officers more discretion how to handle low-level non-violent midsdemeanor offenders.

Deputy McKnight suggested this reform last fall in a letter to Grits, and its legislative embodiment, HB 2391, was the most important bill passed by the 80th Texas Legislature to assist counties facing jail overcrowding crises, which is quite a few of them. The jail administrator in Midland County also backed the idea, which given that that's the Speaker's home district probably didn't harm the bill's passage in the Texas House.

The Governor could still veto the bill, but then the 80th Legislature would have done nothing to relieve needless local jail overcrowding and force budget-busting jail construction or expensive contracts leasing beds. A bigger concern is whether local law enforcement will coordinate with Sheriffs running county jails and actually use these new tools

The other bill passed this session aimed at reducing jail overcrowding was a much more minor bill, HB 541 (discussed by Grits here) which allows judges to grant bail "blue warrant" parolees detained in the jail for technical violations awaiting a parole revocation hearing. Often parole officers did this, Sheriffs complained, with no intention of revoking the offender - "jail therapy" was the term used for parole officer's practice letting a parolee sit in jail to think through their options.

I don't think this will help as much as proponents hope, mainly because judges are reluctant now to grant personal bonds and parolees typically will not have money to make bail. However, what might help are substantial new state investments in Intermediate Sanctions Facilities in the budget designed precisely to provide an intermediate level of confinement, to give parole officers punishment options somewhere between a slap on the wrist and sending technical violators back to prison to complete their full sentence.

So long as Gov. Perry doesn't veto these bills, the Lege has given judges and law enforcement new tools that empower them (if they'll use them) as McKnight put it, to change their "thinking as to who gets arrested and why." (For those interested, see more of McKnight's suggestions.)

No doubt the Lege could have done more, but these two bill are a start. Certainly counties that don't use these new tools should be vigorously questioned when they come to the public asking for more debt for jail construction.

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