Thursday, January 17, 2008

Properly staffing Dallas jail cost big bucks, with more to come

Nobody expects the Dallas jail to 100% pass its inspection this week by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, but if they've really solved their short-term understaffing crisis it will be a big accomplishment.

After many years of non-compliance with state standards, Dallas County has nearly eliminated staffing problems at the jail, the Dallas News reports, but only by spending more than $9 million last year in overtime. In the end, hiring enough guards to minimally staff the jail required the county commissioners to pony up an additional $11 million per year. Reported the News ("Overtime bill at Dallas jail tops $9 million," Jan. 16):

Sheriff Lupe Valdez's department spent more than $9 million on overtime at the five jails during fiscal 2007, according to a report made public Tuesday by the county auditor's office.

Some guards volunteered to work long hours to make up for staffing shortages, doubling their salaries with overtime.

In fiscal 2006, the department spent $9.4 million on jail overtime, which at the time was the most anyone could recall being spent. In 2005, the department spent $5.3 million on overtime. In 2004, it came to $1.7 million.

Commissioners approved 266 new jail guard positions last fiscal year, costing $11.5 million, according to the budget office. As of Tuesday, all but 25 of those positions have been filled, said Dr. Mattye Mauldin-Taylor, the county's human resources director.

The new positions were needed to meet the state's minimum staffing requirement of one guard for every 48 inmates – a standard the county hasn't met for the last three years.

Sheriff Valdez inherited the jail overcrowding problem, and since she took charge the county has both hired more guards and taken steps to reduce the jail population to bring the staffing ratios in line. Though she's receive a lot of flak for various problems, she deserves credit for that accomplishment.

However, the achievement will be short-lived if plans to open a new 2,300 bed jail wing in February 2009 stay on schedule. More expensive than building the jail itself will be staffing it. The $11 million per year the county just forked over won't make a dent into that additional staffing need.

At the state's 48-1 staffing ratio (a too-high number for safety's sake, if you ask me, but that's the rule), assuming three, eight-hour shifts, the new jail will require 144 additional front-line guards - perhaps 175 or 200 by the time you add in supervisors, travel details and backup, plus administration and support - call it an additional $8-9 million or so annually, as a ballpark guesstimate, just to staff the planned new unit.

If voters want to use incarceration as the primary government response to every social problem, at some point they have to pay the tab. Dallas taxpayers are discovering that they're only barely able to do so.


Anonymous said...

Why is it that I can always find a more informative, objective, and honest article here at Grits than ever on the Dallas Morning News?

I will admit, Kraus and the DMN have been doing a much better job lately of providing a fair perspective on the jail crisis and the state of the Sheriff's department.

Thanks for all you do, and keep up the good work. But just as a side, I have always wondered what you think of Sheriff Valdez. Have you ever met her in person? Do you think she has done a good job? It sounds like you have an open mind, but just aren't ready to support her yet. (That's kind of where I am...)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Aw, shucks ... thanks Shane!

That said, Kevin Krause and the DMN, I think, are doing a better job on those topics than most papers in the state, by a longshot.

It's not really a fair comparison, either, because Kevin and I are doing different things. What would blogging be without the baseline information the MSM produces? What I try to do is "add value" to MSM reporting, but all of us rely on it, and I'd take the DMN over a lot of papers.

On Valdez, I don't vote in Dallas, of course, but I think it'd be worth hearing out her opponents. From what I hear, she made the mistake of not bringing in her own people when she first won the job, then had resistance and was isolated in her own agency nearly from the get go.

That said, I consider the overcrowding crisis her biggest challenge, and though it's taken nearly her whole first term, she's (apparently) met it. Getting jail healthcare in compliance, though, has not been as successful. I'm not convinced there's not a candidate out there who could do the job better, but other than knowing it's NOT Jim Bowles, I don't have a preference.