Sunday, October 14, 2007

Texans' Taxation Revulsion vs. their Incarceration Addiction: Which will prevail on county jail building?

According to this table (pdf) from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, jail projects currently planned or under construction - totaling 13,982 beds - would expand capacity of Texas county jails by 16.4%, an astonishing growth rate considering crime has been basically flat.

With jail elections looming November in Harris, Smith and Howard Counties, I thought it'd be interesting to look at a snapshot of current county jail construction and growth patterns in Texas.

Three new county facilities totaling 2,288 new jail beds have been recently completed (see below) according to the TCJS table. The 1,500 bed expansion in Lubbock has already forced county commissioners to raise taxes to keep up with staffing. In Val Verde (Del Rio), the expansion was so the Geo Group private prison company could use the facility to house undocumented immigrants for the federal government.

Nine more Texas jails were still under construction as of August 1, according to TCJS. They'll total 4,010 additional beds by the time they're all completed. The following table lists counties with new jails under construction, recently completed jails, and the three new Texas county jails on the November ballot:

Texas County Jail Construction Snapshot 8/1/07

Most Texas counties of any size have reached a crossroads, facing decisions quite similar to the conundrum faced by state officials. The impetus to get tuffer and tuffer on crime has run up against ubiquitous GOP promises not to raise taxes. Today, though, building new jails and maintaining old ones are the biggest contributing factor to rising taxes in nearly every jurisdiction.

That's been true of Lubbock's new jail and Dallas' old one. In Tyler, a proposed new jail would boost county taxes by 22.8%. The new jail in Houston will increase the criminal justice portion of Harris County's budget from 16% to 25% of the total. (Exacerbating the problems, Texas presently faces a statewide shortage of prison and jail workers.)

All told, on Nov. 6, Texas voters will consider approval of more than $600 million in new debt to finance more jail and prison building. With the exception of the Howard County jail (which needs to be replaced because of longstanding structural flaws), to me very little of this spending is necessary to improve public safety. True, many jails are full (pdf), but as in Nacogdoches County, I believe overincarceration in Texas stems largely from decisions by elected officials, not raw demographics beyond their control.

Bottom line: Texas pols can either support more jail building or they can support keeping taxes low. But the base economics of 21st century jail construction dictates that they can't credibly do both, at least not at the county level. Hard choices must be made, though to this writer the choice is clear. As I wrote recently, "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." Hopefully that reversal will come to a head next month with voters' rejection of jail bonds in Smith and Harris Counties.

RELATED: See Grits best practices for reducing jail overcrowding, Part 1 and Part 2. See also the TCJS monthly jail population report (pdf) by county.

1 comment:

Thomas Hobbes said...

It just goes to show that you really can't be a "law and order" conservative without being a fiscal liberal.