Sunday, June 24, 2007

Tarrant DA's new DWI policy will overcrowd jail

A new legal interpretation by Tarrant County prosecutors could end a 20 year old practice punishing DWI offenders with manual labor instead of incarceration, a change that could add more than 700 offenders to the already-full Tarrant county jail. Reports the Fort Worth Star-Telegram ("Sheriff: DA's DWI policy will overcrowd jail," June 13):
For more than two decades, Tarrant County defendants convicted of driving while intoxicated have routinely managed to avoid a jail cell by working "labor detail."

Labor detail allows defendants to serve their jail sentence by picking up trash, mowing or painting once a week for the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department.

Now there is a debate brewing about whether the practice is legal.

The Tarrant County district attorney's office recently told judges and defense attorneys it would no longer agree to allow defendants convicted of alcohol-related offenses to work labor detail.

No one was more surprised than Sheriff Dee Anderson, who said the program keeps the population down at the jail, which is at capacity; saves taxpayer money; and benefits the community.

"It came out and blindsided us," Anderson said.

Anderson said that without labor detail, DWI defendants would be required to serve their sentence behind bars. Last week, for example, 1,182 defendants were in the labor detail program. Of that number, 721 had a DWI conviction, which is about average at any given time.

"It certainly would impact us negatively, if you add 700 people to our jail population," Anderson said. "Did we think this through?"

I don't understand why the DA thinks it's even his call - that's what judges are for, right? Judge Billy Mills told the paper, "we disagree on what the law is." Usually when lawyers and judges disagree, the judge's opinion trumps.

But I suppose if ADAs won't agree to the labor program as part of a plea agreement, judges can't force them to accept it, though they could impose the sentence over the DA's objections in non-plea cases. Maybe someone needs to explain to this office that it's judges, not them, who get to interpret what the law does and doesn't allow.

The Sheriff is right: The Tarrant DA didn't think this through. When the new policy inevitably creates a jail overcrowding crisis, the District Attorney deserves to become the media posterchild for all necessary tax increases proposed for any new jail construction.


Anonymous said...

This reminds me of a sheriff in East Texas "Jasper," that use to take his prisoners out to his "pea farm" when it was time to pick the peas. Of course the only one it benefitted was the sheriff.

Anonymous said...

There are many judges across the state who interpret the law as requiring persons convicted of a first DWI to serve 72 consecutive hours in jail. The way the punishment statute has been written is open to interpretation.