Monday, October 08, 2007

Texas voters will decide on more than $600 million in new jails and prisons in November 6 election

Because being "tuff on crime" has for so long in Texas enjoyed a bipartisan consensus (it's a bailiwick of Democrats as much or more than Republicans and a near constant source of demagoguery for most everyone who runs for office), voters seldom get a chance to register opinions at the ballot box to oppose mass incarceration.

The one key exception to that are votes on jail and prison bonds. So with the November elections looming, lets take a look at new jails and prisons proposed this year by Texas pols - more than $600 million total, plus other sundry criminal justice expenses.

Statewide, the Legislature wrapped debt to pay for new prisons into a larger, more innocuous set of bond proposals that goes before voters Nov. 6. Reported the Austin Statesman ("State asks voters for $1 billion in bonds for construction, repairs," Oct. 8), "The most costly item in Proposition 4 would be $233 million for three new minimum- to medium-security prisons. Also included is $28 million for one new facility and renovations at the Texas Youth Commission."

While new prisons might have been vulnerable in a stand-alone vote, linking the debt to parks spending and funds aimed at the mentally retarded probably make these bonds a shoo-in. Personally I believe such disparate projects should be put before the voters individually. I shouldn't have to vote for three unnecessary prisons to approve support for parks and the developmentally disabled, but that's the Janus-faced option the Legislature has placed in front of us.

In Harris County, reported the Houston Chronicle last week ("Massive bond could feed Harris' appetite for construction," Oct. 4), voters will decide whether to approve more than a half billion dollars in new debt to expand jail capacity. Bonds would pay for a new central processing center for the jail ($213 million, plus $32 million from the city), to renovate the old jail to become a juvenile detention center ($115 million), to pay for a new morgue and crime lab building ($100 million) and to build a new family law center ($90 million). The combined new cost including staffing will boost jail operations from 16% to 25% of the county budget and require new taxes. (Of course, that assumes it's even possible to find enough guards to staff a new jail.)

God knows, Houston needs a better crime lab, but Harris County officials lumped that critical item in with unnecessary law enforcement pork that voters should reject. Detect a pattern? One up or down vote. If voters want to fix the crime lab, they must also agree to building jail space Harris County can't afford or properly staff.

Like most counties in the state with over crowded jails, Harris County's problems don't stem from increasing crime but from decisions by elected officials, especially judges and the DA, for how to handle low-level, nonviolent offenders. As Grits reported in 2005:
According to a recent consultant's report (Word document) by the Justice Management Institute, a major reason is clear: A shift in bail policy over the last decade to require cash bond in more cases instead of personal bond, or releasing defendants on their promise to later appear in court. Half of all inmates presently in the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial; a large proportion couldn't make bail.

other factors are also at play, much of the Harris County Jail's overincarceration crisis can be explained by this shift in policy. In other words, Harris County's jail overcrowding crisis is a self-inflicted wound.

In the last ten years, the number of misdemeanor defendants who were ordered to pay bail instead of being released on "personal bond" increased more than 30,000%! No, that's not a typo:
It increased more than thirty thousand percent!
Such decisions by local judges may benefit the bail bond industry, but they do so at the taxpayers' expense. (See Grits' 2005 series on Harris County jail overcrowding.) To me it takes a lot of chutzpah to create such a problem then soak taxpayers for your mistakes; if these judges won't change their approach, Harris County may get a chance to elect a bunch of new ones in 2008.

In Smith County (Tyler), voters will consider whether to approve a $125 million jail bond proposal, even though voters rejected new jail bonds last year that would have cost $50 million less. State District Judge Cynthia Kent has valiantly promoted alternatives to incarceration for low-level offenders, but with the exception of one successful program, most of her advice has gone unheeded. The new proposal will increase county taxes by 22.8%.

One thing both Harris and Smith Counties have in common, btw: law enforcement in those jurisdictions won't use all the tools at their disposal right now to manage their jails, but want voters to approve more construction even when more effective, less expensive solutions haven't been tried.

Police and Sheriff's Departments in both counties have refused to make use of new tools created in the last Legislative session to reduce jail overcrowding. Sponsored by Republican House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, HB 2391 gave law enforcement officers the discretion to give certain low-level nonviolent misdemeanor offenders a citation and summons rather than take them all downtown for booking into the jail. Voters should demand officials try this and other jail overcrowding solutions before approving new construction.

Perhaps the only justified jail building proposal on any Texas ballot is in Howard County, where the old jail simply doesn't comply with minimalist modern jail standards and cannot be renovated. Even so, more than 60% of local voters rejected a new jail last year. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards told local officials if the bonds don't pass this year they'll shut the jail down.

I'll be watching closely to see what Harris and Smith County voters do on their jail bonds - I've not heard of an organized opposition in Harris County, though a voters group is opposing the new jail in Tyler. If one or both go down it'll signal that attitudes toward incarceration are really beginning to shift. In Howard County, voters more or less are backed into a corner, while I'm afraid the skids are greased, as well, for approving new state prison debt.

Note to readers: Be sure to let me know about any Texas county jail building proposals on the November 6 ballot that I missed. (Image via UT-Austin's LBJ School)


Anonymous said...

Here we go again. Let's create three new prison towns for those unemployable who will easily qualify as a guard at the local prison. Of course, then we have to fill the prisons so the court system will bow down and give unbelievable sentences. Once we get them locked up we will then contend with a parole board gone mad. More lives will be ruined, a few low IQ people will become guards, and the prison machine in Texas will continue it's insanity. Scotty...beam me up before it's too late!!

Anonymous said...

My understanding is that the proposition will also include funding for the school for the blind and a new TYC facility located near an urban area. Grits, is there anyway to get the lege to break up these issues, so that Texas voters can say no to prisons without saying no to everything else too?

Anonymous said...

Lumping projects together is an old political trick to force voters to vote for things they would never approve otherwise. It will never stop. The elected officials would never give away one of their best tools.


Anonymous said...

Building unneeded things requires contracts which produce kick-backs which equals money and or power for the pols.

Anonymous said...

DPS will get more money for crime labs and lab employees so that people won't wait in jail so long before trial. That should ease jail conjestion.

DAC said...

With regard to your statistics on the Harris County Overcrowding, are there any similar studies for Hidalgo County that you are aware of? I would like to know because I hear the bonds people griping about PR bonds and the family courts sending them in with Cash Bonds (not surety bonds).

Unknown said...

That "old trick" doesn't work in Oregon. We have even voted down veteran's benefits [sacred cow in Oregon] in order not to pay for big government. The trick in Oregon is to NOT index income taxes so that everyone who works any hours pays the maximum 9% marginal income tax. Then you DON'T index standard and personal deductions. They do have a personal tax credit but that comes after every low income full time employee pays over half their income at the highest marginal tax rate.
Even so, counties have several bond measures that have - believe it or not - many law enforcement funding measures that will mostly go down in flames. Mass incarceration scams pass statewide by 3-1 margins while actual funding measures go down by 55% margins or more. We've got an 85 cent per pack cigarette tax that will pass easily. Sock it to the addict; make "those" people pay for government. It highlights health care for kids - but some of that money goes for law enforcement boondoggles. Put low income criminals in jail; let low income legal addicts pay for some of that jail space. Then all the state run jails can be run on one of the most regressive income tax scams ever. Our state income taxes haven't been indexed from 1975 until 2003. With all my backbiting and whining someone took notice and started indexing the rates then. It's a no starter for media coverage. Let's blame our problems on illegal immigrants instead.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Grits - Have you any notion about why Smith County has not made better use of its Pretrial Services department? Although local officials have tried to neuter it in recent years, the department still exists and is an available resource.

Anonymous said...

The government, justice system, tax system, politicians, legislature, etc, is nothing more than a malignant cancer with feeders everywhere. These people have to make new laws frequently to keep a new money source. They know they cannot draw a paycheck if they just sit on their butts, so they have to look busy. The more new laws the more money. If you put a bunch of people on a deserted island do you think the first thing they would do is elect officials. I doubt it, the strong would survive. Whatever I do today does not depend on any government, They are nothing more than leeches.Throw them on a deserted island and see what happens.

Anonymous said...

As a Bail Bondsman in Texas the answer to jail overcrowding is a hard to find. Most of your jails are filled with people on parole violations, convicted either waiting for TDCJ to pick them up or serving County Time for Misd., and Felony Probation Violations waiting to be adjudicated. If you could get judges to set reasonable bond amounts defendants could post bail without the us of a tax payer funded pretrial office.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Responding to the anonymous bondsman . . .

I understand your economic annoyance that pretrial services agencies exist. I even understand the purpose of bail (which, by the way, was not always rooted in money). But why, exactly, should anyone in a public jail be forced either to sit in jail or purchase their freedom from a private business? And, since I'm stepping on toes already, since bondsmen rarely do more than get their charges into court (its economically unwise to do anything more, since it would simply drive the customer toward a less burdensome bondsman), what do bondsmen contribute to the safety of the community?

Anonymous said...

I say No way !!!!!!!!! Hell they cant even staff the ones they have now, My Daughter quit the one in Colorado City last year due to the fact She had to work 6 days on and one day off and the one day off She was on call !!
Thats one of those Good Ole Boy Wardens LOL..She was at that Unit 3 Years and quit due to mis management as well as the warden letting all of His friends off on Holidays ,, Thats so funny how they cant seem to keep corrections officers.I would say top them clean it up then you will get more prisons...they are 65% staffed with what they have now so lets build more Units so that number will go way way down..
Smart Thinking/