Sunday, July 08, 2007

Consultant: Midland jail should tackle overincarceration by reducing pretrial detention

I've argued for two years that for many Texas counties, excessive pretrial detention - especially for misdemeanants and low-level, nonviolent felons - is the primary cause of local jail overcrowding. But instead of taking my word for it, the Midland County Commissioners Court paid for a consultant's report to tell them the same thing. Reports the Midland Reporter-Telegram ("Consultants say Midland has inordinate number of misdemeanor violators," July 8):

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards' June population report shows that Midland County held approximately 48 pre-trial misdemeanants per 100,000 residents, nearly five times the average rate of pre-trial misdemeanants held in the state's three largest counties.

The commission's report shows that as of June 1 inmates charged with misdemeanor violations who yet to go to trial accounted for about 17.8 percent of the county's inmate population, roughly the same percentage of inmates that the county is paying to house in other counties at a cost estimated by Sheriff Gary Painter to reach $1 million.

By contrast, Harris County had about 11 pre-trial misdemeanants per 100,000 residents, Tarrant County had about 16 pre-trial misdemeanants per 100,000 residents, and Dallas County, which reported only nine pre-trial misdemeanants in custody, had about 0.38 pre-trial misdemeanants per 100,000 residents.

Monday, the Commissioners' Court will hear reports from the consulting firm Griffith & Associates and from the Office of Court Administration including recommendations for changes in several areas of the criminal justice system to improve efficiency and reduce jail overcrowding. County Judge Mike Bradford said the reports are likely to include recommendations for addressing the number of alleged misdemeanor violators being held at the jail.

"You're going to hear a great deal of detail on that issue," Bradford said. "Both parties have called to tell me about that. Their preliminary view is we have an inordinate amount of misdemeanants in jail."

Recently I offered a similar prescription for Bexar County's jail overcrowding woes. Midland has a pretrial services division, but has chosen policies that prevent them from bonding out more inmates so that local bail bond companies can maximize profit.

According to the Reporter-Telegram, "the county requires a 24-hour wait before inmates may use the pre-trial services. "They give bondsmen 24 hours to bond folks out, then (Pretrial Services Director Tim Long) will start looking at them," [Judge Marvin] Moore said.

That's senseless - pretrial services should see them first, then the bond companies can market their services to those who aren't eligible for personal bonds. Right now, indigent misdemeanants in Midland must sit in the county jail 24 hours for no other purpose than to benefit bail bondsmen. That's an example of misguided priorities needlessly filling up the jail with people who don't need to be there.

I was also glad to see Sheriff Gary Painter say Midland County intends to use new authority granted by the Legislature to issue citations for certain nonviolent misdemeanors instead of arresting them all.
Painter said a recently passed law, which will take effect Sept. 1, may also help reduce the number of pre-trial misdemeanants being incarcerated in Midland County by providing law enforcement officers with more discretion to issue citations instead of arresting someone for a misdemeanor offense. As an example, he said law enforcement officers will have the option to issue a citation and summons for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Whether Midland County Sheriff's Department deputies utilize this discretion may depend on the individual, Painter indicated.
Grits tracked the legislation Painter's talking about throughout the legislative session. The jail administrator in Midland backed the cite and summons idea, and Bexar County also hopes to implement it. I think most counties would benefit from following their lead, assuming they can get local police departments to cooperate. (I recently described some of the infrastructure counties need to create to take full advantage of the new law.)

Neither these problems nor the most obvious solutions are Midland's alone - counties all over the state struggle with excessive pretrial detention that causes jail overcrowding. By aggressively using these two strategies - expanding early access to personal bonds and using citations for low-level misdemeanors - my guess is Midland will be able to entirely solve its short-term overcrowding problem.

And if that doesn't do the trick, here are a few more ideas for folks looking for solutions to local jail overcrowding woes:
  • Grits best practices to reduce county jail overcroweding, Part One and Part Two.


Anonymous said...

Midland County could have saved some money simply by reading your blog.

Hmmm. Maybe this is where the consultant gets his ideas.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

There's no doubt the consultant saw my stuff, unless s/he doesn't use the internet. Google the phrase "county jail overcrowding" and see what top sites come up!