Friday, June 22, 2007

Bexar County jail overcrowding caused by pretrial detention

Officials at the Bexar County Commissioners Court last night were in a near panic over local jail overcrowding, but the people causing the problem - in particular local judges who refuse to give personal bonds to people charged with misdemeanors - weren't in the room offering solutions to help solve it. According to the SA Express News ("Plans OK'd to get jail on par," June 22):

County commissioners approved a set of initiatives Thursday to immediately lower the population at the Bexar County Jail and hopefully get the jammed lockup into compliance with state regulations.
The initiatives include an incentive plan to pay court workers to find ways to lower the jail population; adding 144 beds in the men's annex; and raising two temporary buildings at the jail complex to house 96 low-risk prisoners.
Those buildings would cost about $500,000 and could be ready by mid-September, said Jail Administrator Dennis McKnight.
"As I stand before you now, the jail is overcrowded and in noncompliance (with state standards)," said county Budget Officer David Smith, who presented a number of short-, medium- and long-term options. This month the number of prisoners topped the projected figure for the year 2011.
McKnight said he was notified earlier this month that the jail was noncompliant — about the same time its population set a record high of 4,627, including those in University Hospital and those being held in other county jails. On Thursday the system had 4,485 inmates — 305 over maximum capacity.
Commissioner Paul Elizondo urged immediate action. "We're like an army unit under attack. We have to do something now," he said, adding that a new jail is not an option.

These officials' discussions ignore the main elephant in the room - Bexar County detains a higher percentage of misdemeanor defendants than any other major Texas County. Those are decisions by local judges, not the commissioners court. In other major Texas counties judges routinely make more responsible, fiscally accountable pretrial detention decisions for people who commit misdemeanors. Here's a comparison of Bexar's pretrial detention and population rates with other large counties (source):

Pretrial Misdemeanants in
Largest Texas County Jails

County Approx. 2000 Census June 1 Pretrial Misdemeanor Inmates
Bexar 1.4 million 720
Harris 3.4 million 442
Dallas 2.2 million 9

Of course, Dallas' figure is so low because the Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently forced them to reduce their jail population, something that may still happen in Bexar if they remain in noncompliance. But you know what? The sky didn't fall! Dallas' experience shows that many of these low-level pretrial defendants can be released on personal bond without reducing public safety (there's been no reported crime spike attributed to this population since the changes were made in February).

We're talking about misdemeanor defendants who've not yet been convicted, but cannot afford bail. Bexar's the smallest of these three large counties, but it incarcerates far and away more low-level defendants than Harris or Dallas. A few of these committed violent offenses but most did not - the bulk of the numbers come from lesser offenses like hot check writing and driving with a suspended drivers license. Reducing their number by half would still find Bexar incarcerating misdemeanants pretrial at a higher rate than Harris County, but in a single stroke would reduce the jail population to below its maximum capacity.

To do that, though, will require cooperation from local judges and the district attorney, and those voices, unfortunately, weren't in the room last night to discuss their role in accepting their fair share of responsibility for Bexar's jail overcrowding crisis.


Josh Berthume said...

So the arguments for lightening up on throwing misdemeanants in jail are obvious. What are some likely arguments in favor of keep conditions the way they are? Are there any real ones?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Really they can't keep things the way they are. They have to reduce jail populations or expand jail space in Bexar, pretty much straight up.

As for misdemeants, domestic violence and Class A assault cases are the ones where there might be real public safety concerns, but judges should be able to distinguish between them and the DWLS and hot check cases. I'm not arguing for Bastille Day, just using some common sense on the petty stuff.

Anonymous said...

Scott, Love you like a brother, but have to correct you on one thing. I was in court, and at the podium during the battle, so the misdemeanor judges were represented. We have many plans for the next few months, and after we meet and get them organized and set in stone I will send you an update.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Did the judges have anything to say, or were they just there to observe the bureaucratic mayhem they had caused?

Sorry to overstate things. Thanks for fact checking me! I was going by the media account and my meaning was that the reported discussion on the jail didn't include this aspect of yall's jail overcrowding problem.

Looking forward to the judges' belated plan, and hope it includes more PO bonds for state jail felons as well as misdemeanants, if you really want to get serious about things. When I look at yall's misdemeanor and SJF pretrial numbers then hear of commissioners wanting a tent jail, it makes me think the lunatics are running the asylum down there! Why can't you keep them in line, Joan? ;) Thanks again for the correction.

Anonymous said...

wow! THEY THINK building new jails and prisons will do it. Im laughing so much. The way the court works $$$$$$$. The whole state of Texas can be one big jail or prison and it will never be enuff. That building stuff will always ALWAYS be full. As long as they see $$$$$ for everyone involved, then its jail time! MONEY TALKS AND YOU KNOW WHAT WALKS!!!!

Anonymous said...

How many misdemeanors have a felony also pending at the same time? IMO-the Felony Courts are the problem in Bexar County. Can you get records on how backed up each court is????

Gritsforbreakfast said...

It's my understanding the jail numbers rank offenders by the highest level offense they're incarcerated for, so I think those also charged with felonies would be included in the felons statistics.

I don't know about per-court stats, but I agree it's definitely the case that low-level felonies, especially drug cases, are also clogging the system. best,

Unknown said...

I can't help wondering: how many "blue laws" originated during the 90s and early double naughts will still be on the books [and sporadically enforced] in 2050? Do we still have to keep passing new laws to punish "bad people"? It's sort of like the "new and improved" ad mode of the 1960s and 70s. It's getting old.

Anonymous said...

I'm a bit puzzled when I add up the numbers across the line for Bexar County. The number is higher than the population? This is why I wondered if they counted dual numbers for pretrial felonies with pretrial misdemeanors. What happens if you have a misdemeanor serving jail time and the felony is still pretrial. I guess I would not ask if the numbers looked lke they added up? New at this so I may be reading the chart wrong?????

Gritsforbreakfast said...

The final number in the chart is the jail's CAPACITY, the population number is in a separate column and in Bexar's case is currently higher than the jail's capacity because of overcrowding. best,

Anonymous said...

You are all wrong. Judges and the District Attorney in Bexar County are slow as molasses when bringing cases to court. If a court sees more than twenty misdemeanor cases in a day it would be a miracle. Twenty five years ago they would bring in hundreds at a time and let them plead out. Then give them probation or time served, why doesn't that happen anymore? By the way, it is almost impossible to have a probationer arrested on a MTR anymore!

Anonymous said...

as a person just released from jail, i can say, that almost 80 % of the lower level (Non violent, low risk, misdemeanor) inmates, abotu 80% of them are in for child support. 2 out of 3 are sentenced to 180 days in jail, but anyone that is , or has been in jail will say that they are only serving 1 and a half months out of the 6 months that was set. They set ridiculous bonds ( ex. 40, 000)to get released. I was bunked next to a guy who was only behind 6 thousand, and they wanted 4 thousand before he was released. that same night i was watching the news, and s.a.p.d caught a guy who killed a guy at a gas station, his bond was set at 30,00, which means he could get out on bond for about 3000, ( 10%) thats 1000 less than the guy who is in jail for a civil matter. The ovwercrowding is , in my opinion the misdemeanor judges fault, and they should be the one who comes up with the solutions to the problem in bexar county jail.

Anonymous said...

All Bexar county wants is MONEY!!!!! Money Talks and B.S. walks! It's not a crime to be poor. Ya'll should start checking your judges and other people that work in their offices. Do they have BACK GROUND CHECKS? Apparently Not! What about the POLICE? The"CHIEF always says "THERE ALWAYS ONE BAD APPLE IN THE BUNCH" All of the police should be DRUG tested once a week. Because their is a bad apple everyday on the force. Think about it!