Thursday, August 09, 2007

Potter county jail has options to reduce overcrowding

Normally when I write about jail overcrowding in some particular county, it's easy to identify the right solution because they're mostly all the same. The vast majority of Texas county jails facing overcrowding have increased the rate of pretrial detention in Texas over the last 10-15 years, especially among low-level offenders.

In Amarillo, though, the Potter County Jail already does a pretty good job reducing the number of low-level pretrial detainees, though it could still do better with misdemeanants. The Amarillo Globe News reports the jail has 624 inmates in a jail designed to hold 596, which means inmates presently must sleep on the floor. Of those as of August 1, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, 72 are pretrial misdemeanor detainees, and another 15 are alleged to have committed low-level (state jail felony) property and drug crimes.

But in response county commissioners are touting GPS tracking as a solution to their problems, even though they only have equipment and staffing to monitor 10 offenders. ("Potter approves inmate program," Aug 8)

That's simply not going to help much at all. I've written before how GPS is a labor intensive supervision solution that's not effective, especially on a large scale, if not supplemented with other tactics.

I'm not trying to pick on Potter officials, btw, they're doing better in some ways than other counties their size. But in this state that's a pretty low bar. My purpose is to suggest better approaches and alternative ways of thinking about jail overcrowding solutions besides "build, build, build."

For starters, Potter county court at law judges could help out by approving personal bonds for more low-level, misdemeanor offenders, which appears to be where the biggest short-term problem lies. Certainly offenders who've committed violent offenses may require bail, but not most non-violent misdemeanants.

Moving cases through the process faster, including felony cases, could make a big difference. Some counties have turned to public defenders to hook indigent defendants up with a lawyer as soon as possible and expedite cases more rapidly. That might be a good solution for Potter and neighboring Randall County to team up for such an endeavor, perhaps with a grant from the Task Force on Indigent Defense.

I also wonder (the reporter didn't mention it) whether Potter County and Amarillo police officials plan to implement HB 2391 allowing officers to give citations and summons instead of arrest for low-level, non-violent misdemeanors? The Governor approved the legislation this spring - the only significant bill passed this year aimed at helping overcrowded jails. So that's a new solution available to them on September 1. Will Potter County use it?

The regional MHMR community center in Amarillo will also receive new funds for mental health treatment as a result of the 80th Texas Legislature that, if spent wisely, could help relieve jail overcrowding among mentally ill defendants. The county and the MHMR center should perform confidential matches with jail and MHMR records to identify people in both systems and target them for preventive services that might keep them from relapsing and heading back to jail. The center could also work with jailers to reduce the amount of time required for competency restoration for mentally ill and retarded defendants.

Potter could always create a day reporting center like in Tyler, described here, for low-risk pretrial defendants. I'm still looking forward to seeing data from that project, which began late last year.

To the extent much of the local jail problem is drug related (and who's isn't?), I'd also like to see Potter and other urban centers go ahead and establish drug courts. Texas counties beginning September 1 must establish drug courts if they have a population above 200,000, which wouldn't automatically include Potter, but the courts in other parts of the state have reduced jail costs and recidivism.

In the medium to long term, Potter judges should begin using strengthened probation provisions in SB 166 and the Texas prison "sunset" legislation encouraging offenders to earn their way off probation through good behavior. Demonstrating good behavior over time, for most offenders, is the best way to judge whether they're ready for release (and remember, the worst offenders hopefully aren't getting probation, anyway). Over time, reducing probation caseloads will lower the number of revocations of long-term probationers and reduce jail population pressures.

Speaking of which, IMO it makes a big difference when judges who run the local probation department change the "outcome measures" to judge the success of their probation officers by different measures - namely the rate of their caseload who maintain verified, gainful employment and probationers educational achievement, both of which should be monitored closely and factored into potential early release decisions. One cannot control trends one cannot measure.

Finally, the Sheriff needs to declare a moratorium on Class C "traffic warrant roundups" by area law enforcement agencies until the jail overcrowding problem is solved. Such projects fill the coffers of municipalities at the expense of county government, and the Sheriff should cut off such wasteful uses of scarce jail resources until the short-term crisis is averted.

Those are my off-hand suggestions for Potter County - I'm sure that given the chance to talk to some of the key folks working in the local jail and community supervisions systems would reveal additional ways to shave the jail population without reducing public safety. But until the solutions are proposed and debated, they can't be pursued. Potter should spend the next few weeks planning and implementing the short and long-term solutions available to them, and maybe they can get some of the pictured inmates off the floor and back into bunks before the Commission on Jail Standards gets too mad.

Local taxpayers should be demanding these and other creative solutions before anyone proposes building more expensive jail space.

See prior, related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

There are hundreds of Counties in Texas whose leadership should read this post.

One County I know of hired additional staff in the District Clerk's office to ensure there were no delays in the paperwork needed to release jail inmates. Saved a money over and above the cost of the new staff and no negative effect to public safety.

Leadership needs to "get over" the idea that a few days in jail teaches some sort of lesson. Remember, innocent until proven guilty in a court of law! Jail time should never be used to coerce a plea bargain from an innocent person. The associated guilty pleas makes life easy for the DA but ultimately costs the State millions of dollars in long sentences for "repeat and habitual" offenders that never had the benefit of due process or a court of law.

GeorgeH said...

There is no reason for GPS monitoring to be labor intensive. Programming a computer mapping system with the boundaries of each persons permitted area and letting it monitor them and alert one operator for hundreds of units if a person leaves their area is pretty elementary. In fact, it could be programmed to just call 911 for a pickup, giving their current location.

Anonymous said...

When will folks wake up? It is not where you are, it is what you're doing that counts.

GPS really is one of thoese programs that gives the appearance that something important is being done but at the end of the day, it is just a waste of money.

Has everyone forgotten that parole/probation is about public safety?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

George, I disagree with you. GPS is labor intensive, see here and here. Also police don't supervise probationers so you couldn't just have it call 911, especially when there's no emergency.