Friday, June 22, 2007

"Unsellable" Tyler jail still too small: New solutions needed for jail overcrowding

Having described today Bexar County's continuing struggle to manage its jail population, I should update readers on another county whose efforts I've been following - my home county of Smith, whose county seat is Tyler. Voters rejected new jail building there last year, but the Tyler Morning Telegraph reports that a master planning firm hired by the county has suggested a facility that's nearly twice as costly - $134.75 million ("Jail facility proposal 'unsellable,'" June 21).

Smith County Commissioner JoAnn Fleming said that "'value engineering' principles had not yet been applied to the estimates. 'This is clearly an unsellable number.'" If they're going to come up with a different number, though, they'd better do it soon if they plan to put a new jail on the November ballot.

"Value engineering," of course, is bureaucrat-speak which, translated, means, "This costs way too much so we're going to throw out the consultant's plan we just paid good money for and do something cheap and half-assed." (The voters would be better served if they'd just listen to Judge Cynthia Kent.)

Even at the new, exorbitant pricetag, Sheriff J.B. Smith told commissioners "this isn't enough beds." He's right. It's not. It will NEVER be enough so long as we fill jails with low-level offenders and law enforcement continues numbers-driven policing strategies. Neither the state nor Texas counties can build their way out of the current overincarceration crisis. What's needed is a new approach.

One such alternative approach was suggested in the Fort Worth Star Telegram today by columnist Bud Kennedy ("A thrifty move: Lightening up a bit on those who light up," June 22). Commenting on the passage of HB 2391 (discussed by Grits here and here), Kennedy suggests police could save money and jail space by exercising new discretion given them by the Legislature to issue citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors:

"We want to get tough on crime, but we also want to get smart on crime," said state Rep. Jerry Madden, the author, a Plano insurance agent.

"Let's not spend a lot of taxpayers' money putting people in jail who don't need to be there," Madden said. "Let's give local police more discretion."

You might think this idea came from liberal Democrats.


It came from thrifty Republicans.

"The idea was to free up more county jail space and law officers' time for violent offenders and sex offenders," said Marc Levin of the Austin-based Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative organization that lobbied for House Bill 2391.

"We looked at how to save counties money. We always came back to the same answer: Take the low-level offenders out of the county jail."

As of Thursday, 302 misdemeanor suspects were among the 3,498 jailbirds awaiting trial in Tarrant County.

They're living off our dime because they can't afford to make bail.

"Some of these people are taking up jail space at $60 a day," Levin said.

He quoted a 1999 Washington study showing that a typical arrest costs taxpayers almost $4,000, figuring in jail costs; judges' and prosecutors' time; indigent defense costs; the cost of transporting prisoners to jail and to court hearings; and the value of the arresting officer's lost patrol time.

"There is no reason for an officer to spend three hours putting somebody in jail when they could write a ticket," Levin said.

Kennedy was talking about Tarrant County, but this new law should reduce overincarceration pressures everywhere. A lot cheaper than spending nine figures on a new jail in Tyler would be getting law enforcement officers in Smith County to exercise this new discretion under HB 2391. Instead of proposing an expensive jail voters don't want, why not stop filling the jail with low-level offenders?

Let's hope officials in Smith and other Texas counties are educating police about their new discretion under HB 2391, and preparing their courts and intake systems to accomodate the new law. More soon on some of the things locals need to do to maximize the effectiveness of this new authority (especially since Gov. Perry vetoed the only other new law aimed at reducing overcrowding). But for now it's worth pointing out this is just one of many tools counties can use, when they choose, to manage jail populations instead of spending ever-more on bricks and mortar.


Anonymous said...

Low-level offenders like Lionell Rodriguez?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Exactly - when I say low-level offenders I'm almost always referring to capital murderers. /sarcasm

If the Tyler jail were full of killers, I'd be the first one to say expand it. Instead it's full of hot check writers and people who didn't pay child support. So I think the voters were right to turn it down, and hope they do so again.

Anonymous said...

Put them all on cemetery duty and make them all work through the county judge to help all the local county historical societies clean abandoned cemeteries, mow, paint and help upkeep on local historical landmarks. Hamilton county had done that a lot and that is how Hamilton county has such a large genealogy database and indexed cemeteries.

Anonymous said...

Wow.. that is a GREAT IDEA.