Wednesday, May 28, 2008

What options besides jail building for Waco?

So what should McLennan County do to reduce jail overcrowding instead of building a new private jail?

In my view they need plans to address the demand side of the equation; counties statewide face the same problems, and they cannot all build their way out of the dilemma.

According to these data from the Commission on Jail Standards (pdf), McLennan County has the second highest incarceration rate in Texas among counties with more than 200,000 people, incarcerating more than 4 people per 1,000 residents. More than 20% of McLennan's pretrial detainees (95 out of 473 as of April 1) are charged only with misdemeanors

More than half of McLennan's jail inmates were incarcerated awaiting trial as of April 1st (pdf), while not too many years ago the statewide average was only 30%. To get back closer to that level, judges need to more aggressively use pretrial services to vet low-level offenders for release on personal bonds.

The Sheriff, Waco PD and county commissioners should also look at implementing HB 2391 in their county, which allows officers to give citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. I've argued repeatedly since it passed in 2007 that voters should reject new jail building proposals if their officials aren't using new tools available to them to reduce overcrowding, particularly the new discretion under HB 2391.

The other option McLennan commisioners should pursue is to create low-level incarceration alternatives, perhaps modeled after the day reporting center in Tyler which has saved big bucks for a comparably sized jurisdiction.

Jail building should be a last resort, but McLennan County wants to pursue building more jail beds than they need without even trying other methods to reduce the jail population.

I've previously wondered which would prevail: Texans' taxation revulsion or their incarceration addiction. McLennan's example shows some counties don't want to make such a choice, wrongly thinking they can have their cake and eat it too.


Anonymous said...

Grits - I agree too many are held in jail awaiting trial, but I also know that where I live, of the 10 courtrooms, no more than three are doing bidness daily. How many district/county court at law judges have you known to die from overwork? How many judges do you know who basically allow the DA to run the show in criminal courts?

And, if you are a county commissioner or judge, do you want to deny the Sheriff's demands for enlarging or building a new jail? Generally speaking, elected commissioners courts do not want to be fingered as "soft on crime."

Only after electorates deny the bond elections, statewide, as well as building new prisons, will elected officials have the balls to stand up and say NO.

The legislature is finally coming around, I think, and hopefully it'll happen on the county level.


Anonymous said...

This topic is wy I originally started reading your blog. The alternatives you mention here alone, along with getting Judge Allen (if it's still him that does primarily criminal work) off of his duff and running a tighter docket would be all that's necessary.

Sadly, counties all over the state are ignoring these free alternatives.

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine recently got out of prison (non-violent drug offenses). After going to visit her in several different facilities over the past year, I can say definitively that Dawson State Jail in Dallas, the only privately run prison she was in, was the worst. The guards were unprofessional, the state of repair of the building was bad, and it was just a horrible place to visit. What she's told us about conditions inside is worse. All the other places she was transferred to were at least professional, if sometimes understaffed.

If we're going to incarcerate people, we as a society have to take responsibility for them while they're in custody. We shouldn't be farming them out to corporate jails.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

First, to anon @ 8:11, thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate you reading. You too, gravyrug.

@ Plato who wrote, "How many district/county court at law judges have you known to die from overwork?"

What?! are you implying that's NOT the most common cause of judicial deaths? I can hardly believe it. ;)

I think your observation about losing a couple of bond elections is spot on. That's why I was so interested in the Harris and Smith County jail bonds going down last fall, in what are arguably the two most "tuff on crime" jurisdictions in the state. Once may be a fluke, but if future election cycles see additional jail bond rejections by voters, you're right that'd do more to change the terms of debate in Texas than any rational argument.