Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Memo to Tyler officials: Listen to your voters and use available new tools to reduce jail overcrowding

Criminal justice officials in Tyler, my hometown, just won't get the message. Twice in two years Smith County voters have rejected a new jail, even though the county already has to pay for dozens of out of county beds to incarcerate offenders. The last vote, in November, turned down a new jail by a margin of 69%-31%.

Still, local officials won't take advantage of a new state law designed to reduce jail overcrowding, despite voters' clear desire that they find alternatives to incarcerating low-level offenders. Governor Perry signed HB 2391 into law last year, enabling police to give citations instead of making arrests for a handful of low-level, non-violent B misdemeanors at officers' discretion (in other words, an arrest could still be made when the officer considered it necessary).

Implementing this one change would likely resolve Smith County's immediate overcrowding problem, but local officials simply refuse to do it, reported Kenneth Dean in the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("A Night in the Joint," Jan. 7):
"I don't believe giving a person a ticket for possessing a controlled substance is a good policy and is not a message we want to send," Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham said. "I believe these people should be arrested, photographed, fingerprinted and worked into the system and this arrest a part of their record." ...

Bingham said issuing a citation for an arrestable offense takes a key tool away from officers and that is the search.

"If an officer writes a ticket, then they can't search the vehicle or the person and a lot of times a search leads to the discovery of stolen property, more drugs, guns and greater offences being made," he said.

Maj. Mike Lusk of the Smith County Sheriff's Department said his department is making arrest based on the law.

"If it is a violation of the law and we have probable cause then we will make an arrest," he said. "On the surface it looks like this law would help with the overcrowding, but we need to see how it plays out in other areas."

Tyler Police Chief Gary Swindle said officers make an arrest if there is a usable amount of marijuana found.

"Per a discussion with the sheriff and the DA, we will make an arrest if we deem there is a usable amount," he said.
Smith County DA Matt Bingham repeats the canard that it's a record keeping nightmare and impossible to establish procedures to use the new law. Dean's story parrots the false assessment from the Dallas News that Travis County is the only jurisdiction using the new authority. However, Grits has identified at least five other counties where officers are using that discretion, and I've performed no comprehensive survey.

So if at least six other counties, big and small, have already figured out how to implement the law, why can't Bingham figure it out? They do it for Class C tickets all the time. And if offenders are convicted, they can still be sentenced to jail time, just like before. The law only eliminates unnecessary pretrial detention, keeping more officers out on the street every day and reserving jail space for more serious offenders.

County planners already are looking at a possible third election to expand the jail, but if the DA and Tyler police chief won't utilize current tools available to them to reduce overcrowding, I can't imagine voters will give them carte blanche to build the massive new incarceration complex they've been dreaming about. And they shouldn't.

HB 2391 - Cite and Summons for Low-level Misdemeanors
Smith County Jail Saga


Anonymous said...

Great article on Smith counties refusal to use the tools available to them! I had always suspected that the reasons Smith officials wouldn't make sensible decisions was that they simply didn't want to listen to the voters, but the article in the Tyler paper has changed my mind. Now it looks more like lack of intelligence, or incompetence! If getting some forms drawn up and making a schedule for hearings is so difficult for them, perhaps they just don't have the gray matter.

They either, don't understand, don't care, or they are doing it on purpose. None of those options look too good.

Bye the way, "Smith County Tell The Truth" blog is moving to a new address it is now under the name "A Jeffersonian In East Texas"

Anonymous said...

The mentality of the Smith County DA's office is to lock up as many people as possible for as long as possible. They don't even worry about whether someone is innocent or guilty, they just want to lock them up. Matt Bingham and the former DA, Jack Skeen, who is now a judge are sadist. They enjoy making people suffer as much as they possibly can. They have absolutely no compassion. I think they also think that the more people they have in the system, the more power they have. If they ever do get a new jail built they'll fill it up as quickly as they can and be asking for more space.