Monday, September 03, 2007

Smith County voters have more options than building Taj Mahal jail

In the face of stiff voter opposition, the Smith County Commissioners Court recently decided to bull ahead to put a nine-figure jail expansion on the November ballot. But until they've invested more in prevention and diversion, and utilized new tools from the Lege to reduce jail overcrowding, I think voters in my hometown should continue to tell the county "No." The Tyler Morning Telegraph solicited reader letters about this fall's $109 million jail bond election and received some excellent responses, some of which apply equally to many other counties considering jail expansion. Those interested should give them a read.

Reader D.L. Wardlaw offered a particularly astute analysis of the economics behind Smith County's jail proposal, suggesting it would be cheaper to continue to outsource jail capacity to other counties:
The Commissioners Court has both failed to consider all appropriate options regarding jail problems, and to inform the public. The only financial justification offered is that Smith County is paying $40/day to house some 350 prisoners in other counties. That implied excess cost is $14,000/day, or $5.1 million/year. What they don't mention is that housing prisoners here costs $35/day, so the premium is actually $5/day x 350, or $1,750 - an annual cost of $638,000.

We are being asked to consider a $109.9 million bond issue in order to stop spending that $638,000. But it is not a $109.9 million obligation! The public needs to understand that a 25-30 year bond at 5-6% interest would cost the county's taxpayers $200 million or so when paid out.

Now suppose this new jail is built with that bond issue money. If it must then support the mammoth bond repayment cost, what does the cost/prisoner day become? $45? $50? $60? Reason and logic are not there.
Even one of the county commissioners publicly opposed the Smith County jail plan because of its fat price tag and lack of specificity. "Unfortunately, with options still unfolding after the election has been called, I'm afraid the 'just trust me' approach will not fly with the folks," Commissioner JoAnn Fleming told the Telegraph.

Since voters rejected a similar, cheaper jail bond proposal last year, with opponents labeling the proposed complex a correctional "Taj Mahal," I'm not sure why Smith County Commissioners think a more expensive, less well-planned proposal will fare any better.

A better approach would be to expand recently launched incarceration alternatives for low-level, nonviolent offenders. On that score, I received an hopeful email a couple of weeks ago from Judge Cynthia Kent in Tyler describing the success of their new alternatives to incarceration program, discussed by Grits here, here, and here. The jail diversion program was begun after Smith County voters overwhelmingly rejected jail bonds last year. Reported Kent:
The program has is currently reducing the jail population by more than 120 inmates a day. The program is providing excellent and intensive supervision which is helping safeguard public safety. The program is providing significant counseling and rehabilitation services which some defendants say "Has saved my life." The program has already saved Smith County more than one million dollars net this year.

The commissioners are considering expanding the program for next year to include 200 inmates at a cost of $862,569 per year but this will reduce the cost to the county by $3,139,000 for jail housing with a net savings to Smith County of $2,276.431.

The money savings is what sells the program to the Commissioners. The real benefit is that lives are being changed, improved, focused on law abiding activities and the public will be enriched by broken lives being pieced together. There have been and will be failures. That is to be expected when admission to the AIC is only for non-violent offenders who are repeat offenders who would have been sent to prison or jail but for this program. However our revocation rate is between 8% and 10% and so we remain hopeful that the others in the program will continue to be successful in working, staying clean and sober, supporting their families, and living on the the law abiding side of the street.
Thanks, Judge, for the update on this important program. According to these spreadsheets documenting the program's results, forwarded by Judge Kent, the new day reporting center (AIC) saves taxpayers around $150,000 per month, with more savings in the offing if the program expands. Those who can't fulfill the program's requirements are still revoked and must do jail time, but so far that's been a relatively small percentage.

I've argued previously that all Texas voters should reject new jail bonds when local law enforcement officials won't use all the tools at their disposal to address jail overcrowding, including creative programs like Judge Kent's and new authority to issue citations for Class B misdemeanors. If, as in Tyler, such initiatives go untried, in the case of the latter, or underfunded, in the case of the former, voters may rightly conclude building more jail beds would be an expenditure of choice rather than necessity.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm sure by now you have the news that the latest proposal is for $125,000,000. Plus the Commissioners voted themselves very large raise.
I just love East Texas Politics.