Saturday, August 16, 2008

Dallas County scrounging for 'loose change' on jail costs but ignores potential savings from jailing fewer people

The Dallas News in a column titled 'Hits and Misses' (Aug. 16) labeled as a miss this suggestion from Dallas County for making ends meet on the backs of jail inmates:
It sounded appealing, this idea to charge Dallas County jail inmates $25 a day, room and board, on misdemeanor offenses. The problem is, state law provides no consequence for failing to pay – except, we presume, more jail time. When we first heard about this a few months ago, we asked around. The consensus was that it would cost more to hire the people required to collect a jail fee – and chase down deadbeats – than the fee would generate (i.e., a net loss). We applaud the county for looking under every seat cushion for loose change, but this is one idea that should stay buried.
Dallas County already has $200 million in outstanding fines it hasn't collected, so I can't imagine how anyone thinks they can squeeze jail costs out of folks cycling in and out of the jail. Not to mention probation and other fees and costs already put a substantial financial burden on ex-offenders that's a significant barrier to successfully completing community supervision; this would just add to the problem instead of relieve it, worsening public safety for the sake of the short-term bottom line.

If Dallas County commissioners are really that desperate, there are plenty of ways they can reduce jail costs without resorting to strategies that worsen crime and recidivism. For example, at a symposium in San Antonio in February focused on jail overcrowding (see Grits coverage), Marc Levin of the Texas Public Policy Foundation:
suggested that county commissioners could "designate misdemeanors that are non-jailable in that county, which also eliminates indigent defense costs." (See his power point presentation.) No county has taken advantage of that authority, yet, but it's a good idea.
He's referring to the B misdemeanors for which the Legislature last year gave police officers discretion to issue citations instead of arrest in HB 2391. But that's not the only category of arrests which the county could designate as non-jailable.

Class C misdemeanors may make up a bigger or at least significant share of discretionary jail use. I was surprised to learn recently that the majority of discretionary arrests by the Austin Police Department were actually for Class C misdemeanors which carry a punishment only of a fine, not jail time. As I wrote on Grits in reaction to a recent analysis of APD arrest practices by the newly formed group Austin Public Safety Solutions:
... 37% of Austin PD arrests are eligible to receive citations instead, according to the report. That's a big number - nearly 16,000 trips to the jail each year. While giving officers discretion wouldn't mean all those trips were abated, if half of them received citations that would make a significant difference - a reduction of around 22 trips to the jail per day with all the expense and extra time that implies.
Of those nearly 16,000 optional arrests, said the report (pdf), 9,902 were for for Class C misdemeanors. The US Supreme Court declared in 2001 in Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, a Texas case, that arrests for fine-only offenses were not per se unconstitutional, but nor were they required. In Austin last year, 9,902 people were arrested and taken to jail for offenses so small-time that a judge could not legally sentence them to incarceration, even if they receive the maximum sentence possible. I don't know if those numbers are similar in other cities, but it wouldn't surprise me.

Given that reality, and since officers have discretion to issue citations instead, if the commissioners court named many of these offenses "non-jailable," as Levin suggests, it would have a big impact. Add to those Class Cs the categories of offenses where HB 2391 gave officers new discretion, and all of a sudden that adds up to big-league cost savings considering how much of the county budget is devoted to the jail.

Necessity is the mother of invention, so when counties are strapped they tend to embrace creative solutions on jails that they wouldn't otherwise consider - some good, some bad. Dallas County shouldn't solve its budget crisis by nickel and diming every department or piling onto the backs of the poorest among us, but by revamping outdated and wasteful uses of the jail. Though the paper says they're "looking under every seat cushion for loose change," by ignoring these options they're doing so while looking past the big stack of money in the middle of the room.


Anonymous said...

One way Dallas County is trying to scrounge for loose change is taking the take-home cars from Dallas County Constables and having them park at designated areas to save gas. My question is, will the elected officials give up their car allowances? That will save money! Also, Dallas County has the lowest tax rate in the whole state. If they would raise the tax a half cent, we wouldn't be in such a deficit. At the City Council Meetings, they tell people we can raise the taxes but they don't tell them how much is actually needed. When people hear "raising taxes" they think a large amount, not knowing it only a half cent to take care of the $40,000,000 deficit.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it turns out Dallas County has only the SECOND lowest tax rate in the state per the DMN.

I feel so betrayed...

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good point, folks. No doubt this is an artificially generated crisis - the cuts to the PD, everything. The commissioners court announces "we won't raise taxes" then slash everything in sight knowing full well a modest increase would solve it all and better serve the taxpayers.

Anonymous said...

Looking at the TCJS Jail Population Report for 7/1/08, Dallas County had 448 misdemeanor pretrial inmates and 489 pretrial state jail felons out of a population of 6152 or roughly 15%. Of course, this doesn't break out class C's and B's that might fall under the "citation only" legislation.

I wonder what the jail processing time is when misdemeanor and traffic defendants ARE able to post bond. If some could be cited only and a "walk-through" pretrial release or other personal bond program instituted, it might cut the processing time down for those processing through on misdemeanor and traffic warrants. I thought I read somewhere about a guy who decided to clean up an old traffic warrant and spent something like 18 hours processing through the DCJ. YIKES!

Seems to me there might be some real savings to be had just in processing misdemeanants.

Am I missing something here?

Anonymous said...

Just let everybody out of jail.They did nothing wrong.

Anonymous said...

We have persons in our society that are developmentally disabled or severely impaired by alcohol/drug abuse and/or metal illness. They impaired to the stage where they should be placed in "adult day care" but that seem to be an option restricted to Alzheimer's patients.

Instead some of them are jailed (in my county 95% are for misdemeanors) in fact they are a substantial fraction of the frequent returnees to jail. Once they are jailed they need assistance in getting out. We have someone on our jail staff that is on the lookout for such persons and tries to expedite their release. That practice reduces their length of confinement but it does not reduce the chances of their return.

Anonymous said...

Grits, despite your decidedly liberal leaning, you are frequently spot on. Except today. If you would, kindly answer this question: if a fine is punishment, and therefore I should pay it, and I choose not to pay it, for whatever reason, what should happen to me? If you can think of something I can legally do to scofffines who are just not paying, BESIDES JAILING THEM and thus making it unappealing to the majority of people to decide not to pay, I'm listening. Otherwise, I'm a pretty responsible citizen, and even *I* wouldn't pay fines I owed if nothing happened to me. I wouldn't pay my electric bill, either, unless the electric company would disconnect it otherwise. I'm betting if you did the math, you'd find that the shear amount of money brought in to finally pay fines when the cuffs come out makes the investment in jail time for the few who won't or can't cough up at the time of arrest more than worthwhile. Your ideas, please, sir, on what else to do with people who don't pay Class C fines.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

3:22, you don't appear to be arguing against anything I've said or proposed. The problem of people not paying for Class C fines exists now, so what you identify is not a function of my proposed solution but a problem with the status quo.

Failure to appear is its own offense and people can be arrested for it. As you imply, that's the mechanism currently used on Class C citations and for the most part the vast majority of people pay their fines. I think the same would be true if they gave tickets for the B misdemeanors in HB 2391 as well. There's no need to arrest everyone on the front end; for those who don't pay, on the back end they can still be arrested the next time they renew their DL or county is scrounging for income.

Anonymous said...

Speaking of scrounging for loose change, looks like the county is going to be looking for another $5 million per the DMN. I wonder which county departments are going to take additional hits to make that up.

Anonymous said...

TDCJ and county jails could save a fortune by giving a simple Alzheimer's test to every inmate over the age of 50 to see if he has a disposition for this disease that can take 20 years to kill and cost a fortune per patient. Yet they don't, so let the Texas public pay countless millions in the years to come. Much of this expense could be avoided by identifying these men early and treating them much more cheaply than is now done.