Monday, June 11, 2007

Opponents of jail overcrowding measure ignore its permissive nature

Legislation by House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden to reduce jail overcrowding that's currently awaiting the Governor's signature was the subject of misrepresentation by its critics in a media report over the weekend. According to the McAllen Monitor ("Bill could end pretrial jail time for some suspects," June 10):
Proponents of the measure hail it as a significant first step in easing the pressures on overcrowded county jails across the state. But some law enforcement officials, including [Sheriff Lupe] Treviño, fear the proposed “catch-and-release” policy would also deny investigators a chance to uncover more serious offenses, encourage officer corruption, and trivialize crimes such as vandalism and minor drug possession.

“I’m totally against it,” the sheriff said. “There’s too much latitude given to patrol officers in making these decisions.”

Currently, though, pretrial inmates make up nearly half of the state’s jail population, according to monthly data collected by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Pretrial misdemeanor suspects constitute 10 percent.

And every bed taken by petty thieves and graffiti artists is one that could be used to house offenders accused of more violent crimes such as assault, murder and rape, argues Adan Muñoz, the commission’s executive director.

“Any time you relieve a bed, it’s helpful,” he said. “In the current situation, every little bit helps.”

Even so, some local law enforcement officials, including Treviño, see the bill as dangerous and have urged Gov. Rick Perry to veto the measure.

The booking process for low-level offenders often uncovers evidence of more serious crimes, the sheriff said. And crimes like graffiti and small-time drug possession provide access to low-level gang members who can provide information on higher-ups in their organizations.

“You would be giving up an excellent opportunity to investigate this activity,” Treviño said.

Furthermore, he said, giving patrol officers the authority to decide whether or not misdemeanor suspects should be jailed could prove too tempting for low-level authorities.

“I think this opens up a lot of doors for corrupt activity by police officers,” he said.

The proposed legislation, House Bill 2391, would grant local authorities the discretion to arrest and release people charged with certain nonviolent Class A and Class B misdemeanors such as driving without a license and theft under $500.
Here's my complaint about Treviño's characterization - it seems disingenuous to pretend the bill mandates changes, when HB 2391 as written is entirely permissive.

Madden's bill gives departments the OPTION of adjusting policies for certain low-level misdemeanors, but does not require it. Moreover, agencies can pick and choose under the bill how far they'll go. Maybe departments decide not to jail Class B driving-with-license-suspended cases, but continue to arrest for graffiti or marijuana possession - that would be each agency's call, and if Sheriff Treviño wants his officers to make those arrests, nothing would prevent them.

What's more, given my concern about abuses involving confidential informants, it's disturbing to me that the Sheriff views enforcement of low-level nonviolent offenses as a trolling net for catching snitches, to "provide information on higher-ups in their organizations." It's one thing to use informants targeting a particular criminal organization. It's quite another to view every single arrest as an "excellent opportunity" to flip a snitch. To my mind, that mentality poses a GREATER risk of corruption than the cite and summons model, which after all is how millions of traffic tickets are routinely handled every year.

HB 2391 doesn't force law enforcement to do anything, and Sheriffs like Treviño who don't like the idea don't have to implement it. But in counties like Dallas, which recently had to release 700 inmates under orders from the Commission on Jail Standards, law enforcement is desperate for tools to manage jail populations, and the easiest way to do that, just like in the prison system, is to reserve incarceration for more serious offenders.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds to me as if this South Texas Sheriff doesn't trust his own deputies for honesty and to properly exercise the discretion that this bill allows...