Monday, August 20, 2007

DAs thwarting jail overcrowding solutions; More on Tyler's incarceration alternatives

Several important new facts emerged in yesterday's article in the SA Express News on jail overcrowding by Lisa Sandberg ("Alternatives eyed to crowded jails," Aug. 19).

Most critically, elected District Attorneys in some Texas counties appear to be blocking implementation of HB 2391, the only important bill approved by the Legislature and signed by Governor Perry this year to relieve local jail overcrowding. Wrote Sandberg:
For all the problems associated with overcrowding, the idea of allowing Class B misdemeanor offenders to avoid jail with a ticket, which the new law will allow, appears about as popular as releasing potential mass murderers, at least to officials in a half-dozen counties surveyed.
This reminds me of District Attorneys refusing the respect the Legislature's wishes on gun laws. The following session the Lege came back and rammed a stronger version the DAs liked even less down their throats. That could happen here if jail overcrowding woes continue statewide and DAs continue to stand in the way of finding solutions.

We already knew that Bexar County DA Susan Reed opposed using the new provisions, despite that county's overcrowding crisis. It's hard to tell if it's really the technical reasons cited by her first assistant (other counties have figured out how to make the process work), or if this is just part of her pissing match with the Sheriff who runs the jail. Her decision cost Bexar taxpayers upwards of $10,000 per day, and rising.

Now we learn from Sandberg that Houston law enforcement won't be able to use the new provision, either. "Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal said he's warned local law enforcement chiefs that his office won't prosecute anyone who's been ticketed for a Class B misdemeanor."

That's astonishing. It really takes a lot of chutzpah, given that the Harris County law enforcement community will ask voters this year to approve a bond package worth more than $195 million to build new jails (that they probably can't staff, anyway).

How can DA Chuck Rosenthal refuse to implement jail overcrowding solutions, then somehow expects voters to spend $195 million on new jail beds? (Once again, where are the fiscal conservatives when you need them?) Perhaps Mr. Rosenthal should ask officials in Tyler what happens when you propose expensive jail building schemes without availing yourself of incarceration alternatives.

Speaking of my hometown, Sandberg's story also gave quite a few column inches to describing the day reporting center Smith County created to relieve local jail overcrowding. Noting a Smith County jury once gave out a 16 year sentence for stealing a candy bar (it was a "king size" the prosecutor emphasized in his closing), Sandberg reports that the:
'throw-the-book-at-em' mentality has come up against a hard reality: jail overcrowding. And that has forced officials in Smith County to soften up.

The county now operates a "day reporting center" for offenders who otherwise would be behind bars. They include hard-core habitual offenders, felons and misdemeanants alike, who'd otherwise be facing months in jail or years in prison.

Instead, they can walk the streets under what amounts to intensive supervision. ...

[S]avings ... to Smith County amounts to about $238,000 so far this year and an estimated $1.1 million by the end of the year.

Gerald Hayden, who directs the county's community supervision and corrections department, says it costs about $10 a day to supervise someone outside jail, about one-fourth the cost of housing that offender inside jail.

Right now, the county is spending about $4 million a year to house its surplus jail population at other lockups, which this week stood at 253.

Hayden says what started out as a money saver has turned into a cost-effective program that gives offenders a supervised structure stressing rehabilitation.

Newly enrolled participants report once or twice a day to a renovated courtroom in the basement of the county courthouse in Tyler. They must wear wristbands that identify them as AIC participants ("My scarlet letter," one woman called it) and must carry their itinerary, a sheet of paper that lists where they will be and the precise times they will be there.

There isn't a lot of leeway. The 124 chronic but not violent offenders selected for the program by judges can go from home to work to substance abuse counseling, if needed, and to the courthouse and not much else. Field officers check up on them.

Leslie Darby, 49, credits the program with saving her life. Last year, she was arrested on her fourth drunken driving offense. An admitted alcoholic who often drank at work, and sometimes all day long, she was facing up to eight years in prison when Judge Kent ordered her into AIC.

Darby said she's taken advantage of the kind of intensive alcohol counseling she couldn't get in jail. She's been sober for three months, her first sobriety in 20 years.

The judge said successes such as Darby's have caused her to re-evaluate some of her views regarding crime and punishment.

"It's just so much easier to send people to prison," Kent said, because judges don't have to worry about whether offenders will do something terrible after their early release.

And she does worry.

"It's in the back of your mind. What if they go back and hurt somebody?"

So far, no one she's placed on AIC has.

Judge Kent has taken responsibility for jail overcrowding in Tyler in a way that elected officials in Bexar or Harris County haven't done. She's implementing programs that step "out of her comfort zone," and the successful results have caused her to alter her "views regarding crime and punishment" after 22 years on the bench!

If elected officials aren't willing to step outside their comfort zone and implement solutions like summons' for low-level misdemeanors, voters should not reward them when they come back to ask for bond money to build more jail space.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

So why can't Harris County to the same thing with people that are on monitors, instead of throwing them in jail for "techanical revocation" because of a violation directly tired to their montitors?