Friday, November 02, 2007

Aggieland officials tout more jails, higher taxes

I'm coming a little late to this party, but here's a little more detail on the proposal before Brazos County voters Nov. 6 for $55 million in new jail building debt, which will boost the total number of jail beds in the county from 546 to 960. An editorialist at the Bryan College Station Eagle says the new debt will:

fill the county's jail needs for the next 15 to 20 years.

The proposed new jail is to be built behind the existing Detention Center on Sandy Point Road. The outdated Annex would be removed under the project, and most of the old jail at the courthouse would be vacated.

Only a few cells would remain in the courthouse lockup to accommodate inmates making appearances in one of the county's courts. More and more of them, however, are being arraigned through videoconferencing. The judge in the courtroom and the inmate at a Sandy Point facility communicate through video cameras at both locations, thus eliminating the need to transfer inmates from one location to another.

Voters will be asked Nov. 6 to approve the sale of $55 million in bonds to pay for the project. Early voting begins Monday. The facility itself would cost $45 million, while the remaining $10 million would be spent on furnishings and equipment. The county already owns the land for the proposed jail.

As planned, the new facility would have 684 beds, while 270 existing beds at the courthouse and the Annex would be removed during the project, bringing the total capacity when finished to 960 beds. The new facility would have 244 beds for women, 248 general-population beds and 192 beds for special populations, including those dealing with mental or medical problems.

Like other counties that believe they can build their way out of jail overcrowding problems, Brazos County hasn't come close to doing everything it can to reduce county jail overcrowding without new jail building that even proponents admit will cause a tax increase to make new debt payments. One of their existing jail facilities needs to be torn down and replaced, but with that necessary expenditure they've wrapped a significant expansion of incarceration capacity.

Of the 512 inmates in the Brazos Jail, on October 1 more than 125 of them, about 25%, were either people charged with misdemeanors or nonviolent state jail felonies. That's a pretty high number: these are people who haven't been convicted but are sitting around in jail awaiting trial. While some need to be incarcerated, after screening by pretrial services most of them should be eligible for personal bonds or reduced bail, that is, if Brazos judges and prosecutors would assist with the jail overcrowding problem. After all, they're elected and accountable to the taxpayers, too.

Besides, the more onerous costs from adding more jail space don't come from construction but from staffing jail facilities adequately to compile with state regulations. Nobody ever talks about these new employee costs during these bond elections, either at the county or state level, but over time they becomes the big money drain on counties.

Besides, there are plenty of other ways to reduce jail overcrowding (see below), but instead the newspaper and county officials portray more debt, jail building, and higher taxes as the only possible solution.

Funny, I'd never understood that "Gig 'em" was a reference to the pols over in Aggieland reaching ever-deeper into their constituents' wallets. That phrase makes a lot more sense to me, now.


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