Friday, October 10, 2008

AG says Tyler jail proponents can't keep plans secret

Via the blog for the What Part of No Don't You Understand Committee, we learn that Texas Attorney General Greg Abott ruled against the Smith County Commissioners Court who inexplicably wanted to keep secret detailed plans for the jail being proposed to voters on the ballot just 24 days from now. Today the Tyler Morning Telegraph reported that:
In a letter to Smith County Assistant District Attorney Stan Springerley, who advises the Commissioners Court on actions taken by the court, the attorney general's office threw out Springerley's argument that "executive session will be necessary to 'ensure that there are adequate security features for the new facility'" and ruled that the requested information "must be released."
I can't believe the commissioners court is fighting them on this: Newspaper articles about secrecy three weeks before election day do nothing but harm to the jail builders' cause.

Just before last year's Smith County jail bond vote (this will be the third), County Judge Joel Baker literally shot himself in the foot - as in, with a firearm. For whatever reason, Judge Baker and his colleagues seem hell bent on shooting themselves in the foot politically over a third jail vote, despite two other jail bond proposals going down overwhelmingly in flames in each of the last two years.

To review just a smattering of the Smith County Commissioners Court's strategic and tactical errors:

Despite overwhelming public opposition in two elections running, jail plans were developed in secret then the commissioners court engaged in a public fight to keep from revealing them. The obvious question that springs to voters' minds: "What do you have to hide?"

Perhaps most critically, it was folly to schedule the plebiscite during a Presidential election when they'll assuredly see maximum turnout - the jail did better with voters (though still poorly) when it was on an isolated ballot the first time around instead of on the same ballot with candidates. What's more, the Obama factor will play against them. Predominantly black neighborhoods in North Tyler, one imagines, will turn out for Obama in record numbers, and those precincts strongly opposed the last two jail bond votes.

Meanwhile the Tyler Independent School District placed more than $100 million in bonds before the voters on the same ballot. Which do you think voters will choose: Schools or jails?

Finally, the economic panic on Wall Street will surely doom the vote if it had the remotest prayer before. For that matter, rising interest rates mean the project (and all debt-backed construction) will be a lot more expensive than voters were previously told.

My pre-election guess on the Smith County jail vote outcome: The over-under is about 68 percent against. In other words, I think there's an equal chance the number against will be higher or lower. I'll be amazed if fewer than 60 percent of Smith County voters oppose the jail, and I can't imagine it passing.


Anonymous said...

Sheee! If Banks in London are refusing to lend to each other at LIBOR (London Interbank Offer Rate)at 4-5 percent above UK Treasury rates for overnight terms, What rate will a small town in Texas have to offer to get the funding? Given that the loans were started this mess were residential loans which if foreclosed you could get 50-60 cents on the dollar, what would you do if a city defaulted? Call up the sherriffs department and tell them to evict all there prisoners as the bank was going to foreclose on the prison? What wold the bank do with the prison? You could not make it into a tourist attraction like San Quentin or Robbin Island?

Anonymous said...

My guess is an 80 against to 20 for split, or perhaps as much as 90 against and 10 for. It is good news that the AG won't let them keep the plans secret.

The court should be ashamed of itself, not just for the secrecy, but because they ar responsible for the jail overcrowding to begin with. If they had chosen to make swift justice the priority instead of new jails, we would already be under the needed level!

Anonymous said...

What do they have to hide? Graft, corruption, etc...........

This is Smith County. If there wasn't something underhanded going on I'd be surprised.

Robert Langham said...

If this doesn't pass the county commissioners and Judge should resign. They either can't get a good thing done or they are doing the wrong thing.
Either way, if it fails again, they should step aside and let someone else have a crack at the job.

Anonymous said...

On any Sunday morning thousands of Tyler’s citizens can be found filling church pews. We are in the Bible belt and I think people who live in Tyler like to believe this is a religious community full of good Christian people. Yet, the Bible tells us that we are to Love our Neighbors. I think that many of the people who fill those church pews have ever thought of the people in the county jail as their neighbors. Yet, they are our neighbors. I find it interesting that such a Bible believing, Christian population puts more effort in to trying to figure out how to lock more of it’s neighbors up than it does in trying to figure out how to help them. That seems awfully hypocritical to me. Honestly, I see very little love for one’s neighbor in this community. I see very little compassion, very little reaching out. I see a lot of people looking down their noses at others.
A lot of the people that end up in jail are simply products of their backgrounds. If you look at the crime ridden neighborhoods they grow up in, the dysfunctional family situations, lack of opportunity, and other factors it’s almost inevitable that some of these people will end up in jail. We need to start intervening before they get their. I know of one local church that recently sent 200 people at one time on an overseas mission trip. That’s great. But what if 200 people spent a week in Tyler trying to help those in bad situations? What could they accomplish with the money it took to fly them to another country?
Did you know there are no church services in the jail in Tyler. Most of the smaller, rural counties around have people who come in and do church services on Sundays in the jail. With the number of churches and church members in Tyler it’s puzzling that no one is providing that service in the jail here. I knew someone who was recently in the jail here for several months. The only church that provided a prison ministry to female prisoners was the Jehovah’s Witnesses (Kudos to them). A church can send 200 people to a foreign country but can’t send anyone to the county jail? Like I said, I see very little love for neighbors in this community.
Maybe if some of the large churches in this town would put together some of their vast resources to help keep people out of jail and help those who have been to jail but are trying to straighten out their lives we wouldn’t need to build a bigger jail.
Additionally, there are innocent people going to jail here at a much higher rate than most people would think. We have serious problems with the criminal justice system in this county. We need to start by electing a new DA. One who cares about justice, not one who just wants to lock up as many people as he can for as long as he possibly can. We need a system that cares about helping those that can be helped. It shouldn’t always be just about punishment.
Another big issue is mental illness. Texas is ranks 49th among the states on mental health spending. Yet we incarcerate more people than any other state (except maybe California, I’m not sure). There is a connection between the lack of spending on mental health care and the incarecration rate. In the 70’s a lot of mental institutions were closed. Mentally ill people were supposed to receive community based treatment. The community based programs were underfunded and ineffective. Now, a lot of the people who would have been institutionalized in the past are now in prison receiving very little, if any treatment for their mental illness.
In Texas we incarcerate people at 10 times the rate of communist China. We have more people in prison in Texas than they do in the entire country of Mexico. Smith county’s incarceration rate is one of the highest in Texas.
We have serious problems with our criminal justice system that need to be addressed. Building bigger jails and more prisons isn’t the answer.

Anonymous said...

According to information from Smith County's website the highest category of offenses for which people are incarcerated in the Smith County jail as of October 2 are drug offenses. The numbers show 281 people in jail as of that date for drug offenses. Just another consequence of our failed war on drugs. The numbers aren't broken down but odds many of those are there because of possession of small amounts.

127 people were in the Smith County jail on October 2 for alcohol related offenses. I assume these would be DWI and public intoxication. There have been some recent articles on this blog about better ways to deal with DWIs. Most public intoxication arrests are a waste of resources. How many of these people are actual dangers to themselves or others? Just get someone to take them home.

138 people were in the jail on October 2 for Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility. I'm all for people being responsible but other than a few idiots most of these people probably couldn't afford insurance. For example, one or two of these could be a single mother who can just barely pay the rent and buy food for her kids but she needs her car to get to work. Clarence Darrow said "FIRST AND LAST, IT'S A QUESTION OF MONEY. THOSE MEN WHO OWN THE EARTH MAKE THE LAWS TO PROTECT WHAT THEY HAVE. THEY FIX UP A SORT OF FENCE OR PEN AROUND WHAT THEY HAVE, AND THEY FIX THE LAW SO THE FELLOW ON THE OUTSIDE CANNOT GET IN. THE LAWS ARE REALLY ORGANIZED FOR THE PROTECTION OF THE MEN WHO RULE THE WORLD. THEY WERE NEVER ORGANIZED OR ENFORCED TO DO JUSTICE. WE HAVE NO SYSTEM FOR DOING JUSTICE, NOT THE SLIGHTEST IN THE WORLD." Liability insurance laws are designed to protect the property of the haves from the have nots. The guy who can afford the expensive car can afford the insurance. The single mother who depends on an old car to get to work where she barely makes enough to pay the rent can't afford the insurance. So we put the poor single mother in jail to protect the wealthy persons property.

84 people were in the jail on October 2 for child support. Others have discussed here and elsewhere why jailing people who owe child support is a bad idea so I won't rehash those arguments.

Two additional categories worth mentioning are Driving While License Suspended - 55- and Unlicensed Driver - 74.

Adding all of these numbers up there are 759 people in jail for the above described offenses. Additionally, there are people in jail for 491 traffic offenses. We don't know how many people this actually represents because some have multiple charges. I think it would be safe to assume that the number of people in jail for traffic offenses added to the 759 for the above discussed offenses would put the total somewhere around 1000. If we were to come up with better ways to deal with these issues Smith County would have plenty of jail space.

Another big problem is the issue of bail. Bail is only supposed to be used to secure a persons appearance at trial. The judge by law is required to consider the defendant's ability to make bail. Think about it. How many people could actually make the bails that are set these days. The bails are set so high so that most people need the services of a bail bondsman. Bails in some cases are set ridiculously high and this results in many people staying in jail who should be able to bond out. Judge Skeen in particular uses high bonds when requested by the DA's office to keep someone in jail. This is illegal and unconstituional (although it has been said that the constitution does not apply in Smith County). Getting rid of Judge Skeen would help reduce the number of people in the Smith County jail.

Bonds should be set at a level that people can put up the money and get it back when they show up for court. The current system is set up to make both the bail bondsmen and the county money. Think about this. If someone's bond is set at $50,000 how many people have $50,000 to put up? So they are force to go to a bondsman and pay at least $5,000. If the bond had been set at $5000 they could put up the bond themselves and get the money back when they show up for trial. But then the bondsman wouldn't make any money. Furthermore, if the person jumps bail and doesn't show up and the bond was set at $50,000 the county would then get the $50,000. If however, the bond was set more reasonably at $5,000 the county would only get $5000. Bonds should be set at a level that does not force a person to use a bail bondsman. But then the county would make less money.

There are many, many things that could be done to reduce the jail population in Smith County. The problem is the DA, some judges and others don't want to reduce the jail population. It's about power. The more people that are in the system, the more power they have. For example, the legislature gave counties a tool to use to reduce jail populations. That was issuing citations for some Class B misdemeanors. The Smith County DA apparently was not smart enough to figure out how that would work. Other counties have been able to figure it out. What's wrong with our DA?

Anonymous said...

Here's another good quote from Clarence Darrow:
"It is indeed strange that with all the knowledge we have gained in the past hundred years we preserve and practice the methods of an ancient and barbarous world in our dealing with crime. So long as this is observed and exercised there can be no change except to heap more cruelties and more wretchedness upon those who are the victims of our foolish system."

Anonymous said...

You would think that the Commissioners would realize that they have crossed the line and they need to respect the ruling made by the Attorney General. However, all indications are that they intend to file suit against the AG. They have doubled down and now claim that this is a security issue. The real story is that they do not want me to get the records before the election because they will prove violations of the law. So if they file suit and then nonsuit after the election, they got what they wanted. Shame on them.

Anonymous said...

Two of the County Commissioners will be on the Nov. 4 ballot if Smith County is like all other counties. I don't know if the bond proposal came about as a unanimous vote of the court or not, but, if it did, they're will be an opportunity for the good folks of Smith County to rid themselves of two commissioners.


Anonymous said...

Hey "Anonymous 10/10/2008 09:52:00 PM" I agree completely! That was some great insight! It pretty much boils down to class warfare in Smith county I am sad to say.

Anonymous said...

It is not up to the District Attorney to formulate a policy and procedure for the release of offenders by misdemeanor field citations for violations of certain Class B misdemeanors.

That responsibility falls on the sheriff for the sheriff's office and the chief's of police for their respective departments.

How difficult can this be?

14.06. TX CCP (b) A peace officer who is charging a person, including a
child, with committing an offense that is a Class C misdemeanor,
other than an offense under Section 49.02, Penal Code, may, instead
of taking the person before a magistrate, issue a citation to the
person that contains written notice of the time and place the person
must appear before a magistrate, the name and address of the person
charged, and the offense charged.
(c) If the person resides in the county where the offense
occurred, a peace officer who is charging a person with committing
an offense that is a Class A or B misdemeanor may, instead of taking
the person before a magistrate, issue a citation to the person that
contains written notice of the time and place the person must appear
before a magistrate of this state as described by Subsection (a),
the name and address of the person charged, and the offense charged.

Art. 14.031. PUBLIC INTOXICATION. (a) In lieu of arresting
an individual who commits an offense under Section 49.02, Penal
Code, a peace officer may release an individual if:
(1) the officer believes detention in a penal facility is
unnecessary for the protection of the individual or others; and
(2) the individual:
(A) is released to the care of an adult who agrees to assume
responsibility for the individual; or
(B) verbally consents to voluntary treatment for chemical
dependency in a program in a treatment facility licensed and
approved by the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, and the
program admits the individual for treatment.
(b) A magistrate may release from custody an individual
arrested under Section 49.02, Penal Code, if the magistrate
determines the individual meets the conditions required for release
in lieu of arrest under Subsection (a) of this article.
(c) The release of an individual under Subsection (a) or (b)
of this article to an alcohol or drug treatment program may not be
considered by a peace officer or magistrate in determining whether
the individual should be released to such a program for a subsequent
incident or arrest under Section 49.02, Penal Code.
(d) A peace officer and the agency or political subdivision
that employs the peace officer may not be held liable for damage to
persons or property that results from the actions of an individual
released under Subsection (a) or (b) of this article.

Anonymous said...

The probation officers always come up with something the normal offender has failed to do, so they say. Fugler is in with the dirty dealings. She tells the POs under her they better find a failure of some sort to keep their job. The judges listen to her instead of the offender. They keep this up to keep inmates until people run out of money and can't defend themselves. Hopefully, one day, these dirty dealers will have to answer for their crimes. J.B., police chief, judges, Fugler, need to be fired.

Anonymous said...

As a family friend of the Bakers, I find your gunshot comments completely insensitive. Judge Baker was disassembling a gun for cleaning while he was talking to his wife and while his children were sleeping. He admits that he made a mistake and failed to clear the weapon before cleaning it. The bullet entered his upper thigh (not foot) and caused a hairline fracture to his femur, narrowly missing the femoral artery. There are hundreds of tiny bullet fragments deeply imbedded in his thigh and bone. The damage to his leg caused him to hobble with crutches and a cane for many months as he went through painful physical therapy... not knowing if he'd be able to walk normally again. Thankfully, after six months he was able to actually run and play with his kids again. Your comment was intended to be funny, but it wasn't.

Furthermore, you seem to be an intelligent person, but you really don't know all the forces at work in Smith County. You don't understand the system as well as you think. You are influenced by people in the Smith County community who have or had the power to help with jail overcrowding, but do / did nothing. There are people who put the rest of their lives on hold in an attempt to make the community a better place for all of us. Judge Baker is one of those people. He gave up a lucrative law practice for public service and a lot less money. He took a jail problem one that is obviously a difficult one (see the historical context - how many jail bonds have passed?) and has had to deal with the problems created by previous commissioners courts. You haven't given him a fair shake in your one-sided blogs, and apparently believe that he has more authority to force a fix than he does.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

"Insensitive"? Please, grow a set. When did everybody in this society - much less from Tyler - become such a wuss?

I'm sorry Judge Baker shot himself and that the injury continues to pain him, but it's still ironic that he was simultaneously self inflicting real and political wounds that week.

Judge Baker did indeed take on a tough problem, but he only was willing to countenance a narrow range of solutions - build, build, build. The voters told him to look for other answers, IMO rightly, and now he must take on a different tough problem: Reducing the jail population without new building. On that, I wish him much luck.

I don't have anything against Baker and my criticisms aren't personal, but me and most of the local electorate disagreed with him about new jail building, and still do.

Anonymous said...

Wrong! Judge Baker doesn't have to fix the jail overcrowding problem. He doesn't have the authority to do it. He and the commissioners (you know, the ones you seem to criticize most) have repeatedly voted to fund diversionary programs to help reduce the jail population. The other judges (you know, the ones you seem most infatuated with - like Judge Kent) and the District Attorney are the ones who can have the greatest impact on jail population, yet they want to keep doing things as they've always been done. Perhaps they (the judges) should work past mid-afternoon for their $140K paychecks. Maybe that would help move more cases. Perhaps they could use the citation-only offense option - but they won't. Perhaps the DA could be more amenable to a mental health court that Judge Baker agreed to take on as an additional duty, but... oh yeah... the DA won't do it - it's too soft on crime. Let's lock up all the crazy homeless people and pay $40 per day to house, feed and take care of their medical needs instead.

Your featured celebrity, the former Judge Kent, had 24 years to work on reducing the jail population. For 22 years she was considered one of the toughest judges, and biggest winch, in the state with tough long sentences and no plea bargains (and no heart for anyone: defendants, victims, lawyers, and witnesses included). Only in her last two years in office did she try to change her legacy by creating a diversionary program to reduce jail overcrowding. Perhaps if she'd been more willing to work on solutions for her twenty four years, and less focused on being such a pain in the arse, we wouldn't find ourselves in the $14 million dollar (and counting) mess we are in.