Wednesday, September 12, 2007

USDOJ Consultant: Nacogdoches jail overcrowding caused by pols, not crooks

If elected officials in Nacogdoches won't believe Grits that they're incarcerating too many low-level, nov-violent offenders, maybe they'll believe consultants sent by the Bush Administration who just told them the same thing ("Jail overused, more innovative programs needed," Daily Sentinel, Sept. 12):

Consultants from the National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice, described the local criminal justice system as a "systemwide dysfunction" when they met with Nacogdoches County commissioners Tuesday as part of a three-day evaluation of the system.

They told commissioners the jail was being "over-used," and that more innovative programs could be implemented so that non-violent offenders "never occupy a bed in the jail."

Hmmm. That idea sounds familiar. Unfortunately, the Nacogdoches Sheriff earlier this week rejected the shortest route to that goal - implementing HB 2391 allowing citations for certain minor offenses instead of arrest. Sheriff Kerss bizarrely claims that changing policies to jail fewer nonviolent offenders pretrial wouldn't help jail overcrowding, though on its face the claim makes no sense.

Thankfully, as in Tyler where new incarceration alternatives are flourishing, some Nacogdoches officials don't support more jail building:
"My biggest goal is to not build more beds," Precinct 1 Commissioner Tom Bush said. "I think we have enough beds. Angelina is a county of 82,000 in population, and they have a 180 bed jail, in which they rent 30 of those beds out."
By comparison, Nacogdoches County has about 60,000 residents, and their jail has a 292 person capacity, while renting extra beds! No wonder commissioners want alternatives!

As is the case most places in the state, DOJ told Nacogdoches their jail overcrowding problem couldn't be blamed on the criminals but resulted from changes in day to day decisions by policymakers:
"The tremendous increase in workload that your system is experiencing is not changing because of the behavior of the criminal population, because the crime rate is actually lower than it was in 2001," Cushman added. "The more work results from the decisions being made about the people involved in the cases that are being processed through the system."

Both Cunniff and Cushman told the commissioners they have two options in dealing with the overloaded judicial system: they can invest in "outrunning the workload" by adding more beds to the jail or hiring additional staff, of they can invest in improving the management handling and information gathering to understand how the system is operating and how they can get to the root of the problem.

"You will never be able to outrun it," Cushman said. "You have no central repository of information. The board of directors that could be created could have an independent analyst to provide information that could guide the county to create additional programs to deal with offenders."

That's good advice. The first thing to do when trying to get out of a hole is to stop digging. For starters, Sherif Kerss and local law enforcement need to re-think their opinion about implementing HB 2391, the only piece of legislation signed by Gov. Perry this year providing jail overcrowding relief. The consultants had other good suggestions to solve their short-term problem:

One hypothetical example Cushman gave the commissioners dealt with the spikes in jail population on the weekends, in which the county jail will have people check in and out of jail on the weekends to serve out their sentences, while still maintaining their jobs during the week.

"They are not the people you are afraid of. They are getting a little 'gray-bar therapy' basically, so couldn't they be put to better use?" Cushman said. "With the right information, a weekend work program might be beneficial, so those people never occupy a bed in the jail."

Nacogdoches and other small towns, just like Texas' big cities, are running up against the pragmatic limits of politicized "tuff on crime" stances by their officials. With the 11th highest incarceration rate out of 254 counties, Nacogdoches' jail overcrowding is a problem of choice, not of necessity or driven by public safety.

Judges, the DA, and arresting agencies together could easily solve this problem if they cared to, but it's politically easier to be "tuff" and call for more jail building. What gets me is when the same people at election time run for office as "small government conservatives."

Overbuilt, overcrowded jails are Big Government's epitome, and Big Brother's darker sibling - not just a strain on the pocketbook but a stain on the flag. The trend cannot be sustained and must be reversed.

RELATED See Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part 1 and Part 2, and also:


Anonymous said...


I've thought about moving to Stretch a few times. I think I may finally take the plunge.

Thanks for the inspiration.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Yeah, I had so much junk in my sidebar I'd hesitated to switch to the new templates, but now that I've done so it's more functional, for sure. I'm glad tu quieres.

Anonymous said...

" Judges, the DA, and arresting agencies together could easily solve this problem if they cared to, but it's politically easier to be "tuff" and call for more jail building. What gets me is when the same people at election time run for office as "small government conservatives." "

How true, How true, How true ! SGC in name only !

Anonymous said...

The best comment I have read lately about Small Government Conservatives is from Richard Reeves in today's paper: "All politicians want big government; the difference between liberals and conservatives is what they want the government to do." In Texas, that translates into 'lock em up and throw away the key' followed by "We need more buildings and more keys!"

Anonymous said...

I don't know how your tax measures dedicated to actually funding jails and prisons are doing in Texas. In Oregon the mass incarceration initiatives pass [without any funding of course and way low estimates on cost] by nearly 3-1. The local initiatives to actually fund the jails go down by nearly 3-2. The state prisons don't have to go to the voters; they steal from other programs since none of the state monies are dedicated revenue. Not enough Republicans are standing up and cheering when the chant "clap if you believe in prison spending fairies" goes down. At the federal level they hide most of the military spending "off budget". And this is from the "family values" crowd?? I guess that telling the truth and straight talk aren't considered family values any more.