Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Smith County appears headed for jail-bond rejection hat trick

Somehow Smith County Judge Joel Baker (the head of the commissioners court, not a magistrate) thinks that two overwhelming defeats for local jail bonds means the public really supports a "scaled-down" jail, but they won't support non-carceral strategies to reduce overcrowding.

Why, one wonders? Did you ever consider, Judge Baker, that when voters twice rejected jail bonds by overwhelming margins that they might have wanted you to go in a different direction?

Repeatedly Baker and Co. have rejected that chance in favor of a quixotic jail building quest, and they did so again this week. Tyler District Judge Cynthia Kent on Monday argued in vain for the commissioners court to avoid a jail-bond rejection hat trick. Reported the Tyler Morning Telegraph ("Smith County commissioners rule out new court facilities," June 3):
Judge Kent attended Monday’s Commissioners Court meeting to make the case that new courts facilities would do more to relieve jail overcrowding than new jail space.

“We cannot jail-build our way out of this problem,” she said. “By the time a new jail opens, it will be overcrowded. Building more jail space just increases the room to backlog cases.”

But the county could “case-dispose our way out of jail overcrowding,” she said.

“Smith County taxpayers would fare better spending money to build courts,” Judge Kent said.

She added that there could be an additional advantage to new, better courts facilities: more respect for the law.

“A new courts facility can be designed to be dignified and stately to enhance society’s adherence to rule of law,” she said.

“I would love to see a new courts building,” responded County Judge Joel Baker. “But I don’t believe that in the state of our current economy that people will support it. I believe people see the jail is the critical need.”

Commissioner Bill McGinnis also agreed with Judge Kent, but said the court must remain realistic about what voters will approve.

“I think you proved your point that courts are critical to keeping the jail population down, with your successful AIC (Alternative Incarceration Center jail diversion) program,” McGinnis said. “But we need a lot of things in this county, and with $4-a-gallon gas, I’m not sure what the public will support.”

Commissioner JoAnn Hampton said commissioners can’t get sidetracked.

“It’s important we stay focused,” she said. “We’re working on a long-range plan, something no other court has done before us. But we need to stay focused on building a new jail.”
You've gotta wonder why commissioners remain fixated on new jail building instead of seeking out other means of solving their problems in the face of not one but two failed jail plebiscites? What do voters have to do to send a message to the Smith County Commissioners Court they don't want new jail bonds?

Judge Kent was the most prominent local official who opposed more jail building, so I'm sure to some extent the jail building faction on the court (which appears to include all five members!) views her as "the opposition." But she also is the only Tylerite who's identified small-government solutions that save money instead of cost the taxpayers.

All along Judge Kent has been more in tune with the desires of the local electorate, but jail-fixated commissioners won't listen to her. (Several of her most significant proposals to reduce jail overcrowding were shelved when first proposed.) Will it to take a third walloping at the polls - or perhaps the ouster of sitting commissioners - to convince officials that voters meant what they said when they turned down jail bonds in 2006 and 2007?

RELATED: See also, Cynthia Kent: Smith County needs more court space, not a bigger jail, and here's her letter to county officials arguing the county would get more bang for the buck by expanding courts than jail building.

UPDATE: I forwarded this post to Judge Kent who replied thusly:
Date: June 4, 2008

TO: Scott Henson
FROM: Judge Kent
RE: Smith County Jail Overcrowding

Dear Mr. Henson,

Thank you, again, for your continued interest in this issue. The County Judge and County Commissioners were very polite to me on Monday. However, they made it abundantly clear that they were unanimous in their decision to build a "scaled down" jail, build a new sheriff's office and other administrative offices but are NOT interested in more court facilities. They indicated, but did not say, that if a new court was created that it will be crammed into the old courthouse. This courthouse was built in 1954 for two courts and now houses seven courts. Perhaps in the future it will house eight or nine courts and become even more unsafe for the public, jurors, witnesses, defendants, attorneys, judges, court staff, and court observers.

Insanity has been defined as "continuing to do the same thing and expecting different results." Smith County has ignored the needs of the justice system, judges, courts, and citizens and has since 1984 generally addressed jail overcrowding by building more jail bed space. I predict this new jail construction plan will cost millions of dollars, if approved by the voters, and once constructed the new jail will be overcrowded the first day it is opened. Sounds crazy to me.

Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent
Another Tylerite who did not want their name used informed me that:
the situation is even worse than it looks. The reason is that commissioners are planning on a November bond election. But so is the Tyler Independent School District. If the county asks for, say, $60 million, on the same ballot on which the schools ask for $130 to $200 million, what are the chances of a yes/yes outcome? And if voters pick one of the two, which will prevail: schoolkids or inmates?
To judge by the last two jail vote outcomes in Tyler, it's pretty easy to guess the answer that last question.


Anonymous said...

What part of "NO!" does he not understand?

Oh, well. As you know, here in Austin it took three tries to get the STNP boondoggle approved and two tries for light rail.

"The beatings will continue until the voting improves."

Anonymous said...

If the jail facility was split between "penal jail" and "pretrial detention" it would be obvious to the taxpayer whether it would better to build more courts or more jails.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be surpised if Baker isn't being influenced by the DA, Matt Bingham. Bingham helped kill the Jail Expedited Case Court which would have helped with the overcrowding problem. He just wants to lock up as many people as possible. I think he thinks the more people he locks up the more power he has. He's going to oppose anything that might restrict the number of people he can lock up. He has no use for any kind of alternative programs. He only tolerates the ones he has to. Justice has nothing to do with it. In Smith County it's lock everybody up you can, guilty or not, it doesn't matter.

Anonymous said...

Bell County voters voted against building a new jail more than once and the commissioners built it anyway. They used “surplus money” but raised taxes the next year. In Bell County the JPs set excessive bonds for misdemeanor and probation only offenses loading the jail with pretrial defendants. The JPs think it helps get them reelected. Being a Bell County taxpayer I do not like how the elected officials have acted in direct opposition to the will of the voters!

Anonymous said...

We have created a Mental Health Court Task Force for the non-violent offenders with mental illness here in Smith County. So far, there has been no opposition, but we have a long way to go. We are planning a feasibility study soon. We also have a jail diversion program for the mentally ill offenders which has been in place for approx. 2 yrs.
Sincerely, Valerie Holcomb
Jail Diversion Counselor

Anonymous said...

Smith County, the Tyler Independent School System and the City of Tyler for decades have refused to live within their means, even when supported by the (legally sanctioned) organized crime practices of the Smith County Appraisal District. The last several County Commissioners Courts and elected City Council and Mayors have all made it perfectly clear that they view local government as a BUSINESS. Everyone knows that business is to be grown, market share increased and budget expanded. It's obvious that the council and mayor think the citizens work for them.

It's actually a relief to have them come right out and say it, rather than pontificate around about "citizens rights" or the role of a "public servant." They are out front about who they are and what they want and are determined to get it.

Such is life in the new modern era. It only costs us our money and our freedom.

Anonymous said...

It's naive to think a nice looking court building will make people behave. Not sure your average tweaker really cares that the courthouse looks nice.
While diversion progams are necessary, Smith Co. is dang close to the TJSC or the Feds coming in and dictating what gets built. I'd rather get to choose how the money is spent and have something that can be built the right.
Why not approve a bond that gets a jail that works built while requiring a diversion center or a work release program? The jail's broken in a lot of ways and denying the money now is going to make it more expensive later.

Anonymous said...

The truly upsetting thing about this all is the way the Commissioners just lie and no one calls them on it. We have been told over and over that the county is shipping hundreds of people every day to other counties, and therefore, we need to build a jail. However, if you look at the numbers in the last two weeks we have been over by 64 one day and 84 this week not hundreds. This tells me that the alternative programs are working. How can we ask citizens in this economic climate to spend this amount of money when the jail population is continuing to go down and these programs are being expanded even more. We need to give these programs time to work and we must allow the economy time to get better too. Now is not the time to be asking for approval of a bond election.

Anonymous said...

Judge Baker IS a magistrate. He chairs the commissioners court as part of his administrative duties, but also presides over the constitutional county court. By law, he is as much a "magistrate" as any judge in the state. He handles magistrate warnings at the jail on daily basis, signs search / arrest warrants regularly, and serves as presiding judge for several of the local judges when they are ill or out of town.