Sunday, November 18, 2007

Media criticisms unfair about Dallas jail good time policy

Because criminals and jail inmates aren't very popular with average folks, it's easy to spin stories in the MSM to imply to the public that the government is being too soft on criminals, and I'm afraid that's what happened with a story Kevin Krause reported in the Dallas News, mentioned earlier on Grits in this roundup.

An unsigned Dallas News editorial followed up Krause's story chastising the Sheriff's Department for an 11 year old policy on good time that gives offenders three days "good time" credit for every one served in the Dallas county jail, whether or not they participate in work programs. Tarrant and some other counties give two for one credit, Krause reports, and allow offenders to earn the third day by performing volunteer work, including on crews picking up trash and performing other work outside the jail.

Really, it's as though the Dallas News editorialists don't read their own newspaper. "If you plan to get arrested and/or sentenced to jail time for a misdemeanor offense," they write, "and you could choose where – wouldn't you pick Dallas County?"

Hmmm ... Duh ... I don't know, why wouldn't you pick Dallas County?

Maybe because for every month you spend in jail there you're more likely to acquire a staph infection than you would be to roll "snake eyes" shooting dice? After a scathing report last year, the feds finally sued Dallas County over poor healtchare for inmates last month.

Or perhaps because, once you go in, they might just lose your ass for a year or so?

Possibly because many jailers are young and untrained, making it among the more dangerous and overcrowded urban jails?

So why do Dallas News editorial writers think the Dallas jail is such a great place to be? Because offenders don't participate in work crews. But they've reported the reasons why before--not enough work-crew eligible inmates due to initiatives that reduce overcrowding by diverting low level offenders. State regulators ordered them to release low-level offenders by the hundreds earlier this year - precisely the category of offenders who might be eligible to work outside the jailhouse - and yet, the jail is still overcrowded.

Even so, you know what? Labor from jail inmates on road and bridge crews is nice to have, but it's not the purpose of the jail to provide the county free labor. Reported Krause:

Sheriff's spokesman Michael Ortiz said the department has always had trouble filling the trusty positions.

Each of the five jails has its own assignments and labor pool, he said. Some days, there are plenty of trusties. But because the jail population is always in flux, there are shortages, he said.

"Sometimes we'll have a good number, and the next day we'll be short," Deputy Ortiz said.

Some inmates realize it's too much work and would rather watch TV, he said.

"They apply for trusty status and get it and then realize they don't want to do it anymore," he said. "There's a high turnover rate."

Terry Grisham, a Tarrant sheriff's spokesman, said his agency has not had difficulty finding work volunteers. Those who work receive three days credit while everyone else gets 2-for-1, he said.

"It's the pre-eminent factor," he said. "They want to make that time as short as possible."

If that's the case, I've got a suggestion: Let them keep their 3-1, since changing it would worsen overcrowding and risk a federal court's wrath, and give jail inmates an extra day off their time if they participate in work crews. If they inmates used the new program, it would solve Mr. Mayfield's problem and help cycle more low-level offenders out of the jail more quickly. For that matter, I think participating in work crews probably contributes more to rehabilitation than sitting around the jail doing nothing, so it's really a win-win all around.

The Dallas jail is woefully overcrowded, with private and federal lawyers, not to mention state regulators, already breathing down their necks. Even if they build more jail beds the county can't find enough guards to staff them. So to cavalierly claim they're giving inmates living in squalor such a great deal ignores the obvious question: What would you do instead, Dallas News? On that difficult question, I guarantee, they'll have no snarky reply like their mocking editorial on the work program.

The Dallas jail doesn't have very many options at this point, and none of them include keeping low-level offenders in the jail longer so they can clean up roads in Commissioner Mayfield's precinct.

(Image via Proximo)

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