Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cynthia Kent: Smith County needs more court space, not a bigger jail

Forget building a bigger jail that voters don't want, says Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent. She wants to reduce the need for more jail space by adding one or two courts to process cases more quickly. Reported the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("Judge: New court would clear out Smith County jail," May 28):
State District Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent says adding one or more new courts would do more to solve Smith County’s jail overcrowding problem than adding ever-higher numbers of new jail beds.

In a meeting of the Council of District Judges, she said Smith County should ask the Texas Legislature to create at least one — preferably two — new district courts for the county when lawmakers convene in January.

“We can’t build our way out of the jail overcrowding problem,” she said. “So let’s look at what we can do.”

With the regular session nearing, she said, Smith County commissioners should ask the Legislature to create the courts. The county currently has four district courts and three county courts-at-law.

Adding a court would help move cases through the county’s judicial system faster, she contends, and help clear out jail beds.

Smith County has the capacity to house a maximum of 755 prisoners, and a state remedial order to ship out all inmates above that number to other counties. As of Wednesday morning, 197 prisoners were housed in other facilities at a cost of $40 per day, per prisoner.

Voters rejected a bond proposal for a new jail and criminal justice complex last November, leaving officials scrambling to deal with the overcrowding and the remedial order. One new program judges offered even before the bond vote — the Alternative Incarceration Center — has shown good results.

But a second program, the Jail Expedited Case Court, showed disappointing results and was disbanded in March.

“I know that for many reasons, the JECC didn’t work,” Judge Kent said Wednesday. “There were some mechanical problems.”

But the principle was sound, she believes: a more efficient court system is an integral part of solving the jail overcrowding problem.

But Judge Kent added that a new court, without proper facilities, would be limited in its effectiveness.

“Let me be blunt,” she said. “We (the courts) have not had our facilities needs addressed for 30 years. This courthouse was built for two courts, and we now have seven.”
Kent is dead right that “We can’t build our way out of the jail overcrowding problem,” and it would behoove officials in other jurisdictions to also come to that realization.

I don't have enough information to hand to predict whether more courts would reduce jail overcrowding in Smith County. But I certainly agree with Judge Kent the building is far too small for the functions it serves. Not only that, I don't think many people would disagree with me that it's one of the ugliest courthouses in the state, appearing as though it were designed by some Soviet-era architect with a fetish for concrete boxes.

As if to advertise the building's deficiencies, even the requisite statue of Lady Justice next to the courthouse entrance holds aloft her traditional scales but wears no blindfold. The Houston Chronicle awhile back said that omission is "fodder for a rueful joke among defense attorneys. In Smith County, they say, justice is far from blind."

Judge Kent led the charge against new jail bonds in 2006 and 2007, and has been a key leader in Smith County promoting incarceration alternatives. I'm glad to see she's not done promoting alternatives to unnecessary jail building in my hometown.

UPDATE: Thanks to Judge Kent for sending me a copy of this letter to Smith County officials providing her research and arguments in support of adding 2 new courts in Smith County with the goal of reducing jail overcrowding.

See prior Grits coverage of the Smith County Jail saga:


Joe said...

can't find your email. Have you read the ACLU amicus brief? I'm glad they're finally stepping up. Haven't seen any blogs or news sites link to it yet, but it's up on SCOT's website.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Thx, Joe, I just put something up.

Anonymous said...

U.R. Right.

That is one ugly courthouse!