Monday, October 20, 2008

Tyler paper editorializing for jail in news pages

A bizarre triplet of articles from the Tyler Morning Telegraph awaited me on my news feeds when I got back to the blog this morning after being away from the computer most of the weekend - bizarre because they all seem to overtly promote the jail the way an editorialist or blogger would, though they were portrayed to readers as news stories.

Consider first this odd little feature in which a local historian "said little has changed as the county has grown during the last 152 years. More people means more incarceration, which in turn means more jails." So it's inevitable, like the sunrise - more people means a bigger jail. Simple, huh?

Except that assessment is a fact-free bit of un-historical flotsam, entirely misrepresenting the sources of jail overcrowding in Smith County. Mirroring a trend occurring all over the state, Tyler's recent increases in jail inmate numbers far outstripped population growth in the county - almost all that growth came from expanded use of pretrial detention, especially for low-level offenses. Statewide, jail populations increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, according to Dr. Tony Fabelo, but nearly all of that increase came from pretrial detainees, whose numbers increased 49.2% over the same period.

Half of Smith County inmates have not been convicted yet and are sitting in jail awaiting trial, including (as of Sept. 1) 87 misdemeanants and 75 state jail felons. That means 22% of the county's jail population are people charged with low-level offenses who've not been convicted of anything and are eligible for bond. By contrast, for example, McLennan County (Waco) has a larger jail than Smith and a bigger population but houses only 49 pretrial misdemeants and 57 state jail felons, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The line "More people means more incarceration" may sound reasonable, but it doesn't explain Smith County's jail population figures and neither does rising crime. Today's jail overcrowding is caused by policy decisions made by elected officials - including judges and the DA as well as the commissioners court - and has far outpaced population increases. Recent inmate population growth was a volitional choice on their part, not some demographic inevitability, particularly when they've ignored the easiest solutions available to help solve the problem.

Besides, bottom line: Smith County's jail overcrowding problem isn't that urgent. According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards' September Jail Population Report (pdf), Smith County's jail has a maximum capacity of 755, but as of Sept. 1 only 657 inmates were there and 41 of those were contracted beds (likely filled by federal inmates). So the county was housing 616 of its own inmates on Sept. 1 and leasing another 123 beds from other counties. That still only totals 739, so Smith County doesn't really need to lease those extra beds - there's room for them right now in the jail.

Why would Smith County pay to house prisoners out of county if they don't have to? Is it because it's politically expedient to make a new jail look more attractive? Perhaps that's too cynical, but the numbers don't jibe with the urgency with which the jail is being touted.

The Telegraph's strange little history offers an especially jaundiced and uninformative view of recent jail debates, in which Tyler voters overwhelmingly told the county they didn't want a new jail in two elections running.

The key misreprentation in the story - the line that makes it 100% an opinion piece as opposed to any sort of factual "history," is reporter Adam Russell's assertion that, "By February 2008, the opposition and advocates, both agreeing a jail should be built, came together to plan a bond the community could accept." That's a bizarre and false statement, particularly since there's a well-organized opposition group led in part by a 20-year veteran judge running a campaign against the jail!

A more accurate version of recent events would acknowledge that so many people in Tyler opposed the jail that many different political factions opposed it for many reasons at different points in time. Mr. Curtis and Commissioner Jo Ann Fleming are political allies and their decision to join with jail builders (i.e., her other four colleagues on the Commissioners Court), cannot be credibly described as "the opposition and advocates ... came together."

In fact, Fleming's coming together with jail builders occurred in unpublicized meetings in which the most prominent local jail opponents like Judge Cynthia Kent or Ken Good weren't invited. Even though they're asking voters to pony up $60 million for the project in the midst of a flattening economy and declining oil prices, the county still won't divulge the complete plan that resulted from those secret meetings, even after the Attorney General told them they must.

Where is that "history" as the Telegraph rambles on about jails from the 19th Century?

The same article quotes officials claiming a new jail "would end overcrowding for 22-25 years," ignoring predictions by Judge Kent and others that unless the county funds more diversion programs and reduces pretrial detention, a new jail would be "full on the day that it opens." There's not even a pretense toward journalistic "balance" here, this is a full-blown opinion piece couched as front page news.

Little better was Mr. Russell's offering, "Smith County Jail Bond: What are we paying for?" Inexplicably, Russell quoted the number estimated for interest costs from a financial report produced before the recent credit market meltdown, which means it's entirely fictional and worthless today. That estimate said county taxpayers would pay $100 million in interest for a $60 million jail, but now voters can expect that figure to have increased substantially because of what's happening on Wall Street. (The paper needs to make the same re-calculation for the Tyler ISD bonds.)

Rather than balance spin from jail propoents in the other two stories with quotes from the opposition, Russell stuck them all in a single article titled "Community Speaks out on Jail Bond," published today. Finally in this story, Russell relocates his journalistic reflex for "balance" - of the three, it's the only one where opposing sides are quoted side by side, mostly trying to counter Judge Kent's cogent explanation why the county can't build it's way out of its overcrowding problems.

At least the latter story read like journalism, if bad journalism. The other two read like a high school report from the Sheriff's son titled "Why my Dad says we need a new jail." I don't blame the reporter; that's the kind of thing that happens when your publisher wants the story spun a particular way.

Though the local paper is torturing many facts and ignoring others, new media are picking up the slack. The jail opposition committee has published short essays from voters explaining why they'll vote no, and linked on their blog to a video of a local TV debate between Judge Kent and a jail proponent (highly recommended for those interested).

I'd still bet dollars to donuts Smith County voters will see through these arguments on election day and reject a new jail for the third year in a row.

The diversion programs Smith County tried after voters initially rejected a new jail have worked extremely well, beyond anyone's expectations. If voters reject a jail again it will force Smith County to get serious about jail diversion and strengthening community supervision, while if they just get to keep building, all the urgency for backing those programs will immediately cease. That's my main reason for opposing a new Smith County Jail: I don't doubt upgrades to the jail are needed to improve medical facilities, for example, but they wouldn't need more jail beds if the the county would focus more on diversion initiatives. If voters approve more construction, I fear momentum for such programs will quickly wane despite their proven effectiveness.


Anonymous said...

The Tyler Morning Telegraph is nothing but a mouthpiece for those that run the corrupt criminal justice system in Smith County.

Anonymous said...

Y'know, it seems to me there's a lot we don't know in this story. The reasons why building the jail is a colossal waste of money are obvious. The reasons the county wants to build one anyway are anything but. Somebody stands to make a whole lot of money on this deal, and it's not the taxpayers of Smith County.

Anonymous said...

Well it doesn't help that the owner of the paper basically dictates what's printed. Or that most of the reporters look for the easy road when writing their stories. Mr. Russell didn't dig deeper than "both jail opponents and supporters came together" because it would have taken a bit more legwork and thought process. There's JoAnn Fleming, there's Judge Baker, they're holding hands... There! Oppents and supporters are coming together!

Anonymous said...

gravyrug-If and when a new jail is built, you can look for it to be operated by CEC, formerly known as CiviGenics.

Jailers will no longer be county employees thus saving the county hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Watch and see this happen if the jail is ever built.

Anonymous said...

The information below regarding a Civigenics was found on another website. It appears that what a county may save by contracting with this company could be dwarfed by what it could cost them in lawsuits.

"It may be that humanitarian concerns about the huge number of miles family or counsel would have to travel to see inmates are not a priority, but commissioners should take a look at the financial impact on your county. While Dickens is under new management, the new private company CiviGenics has almost as bad a record as the previous one. Just last week, Texas Jail Project received reports from people with relatives incarcerated at Dickens; those inmates were evidently locked in blocks with gang members who administered beat downs that were ignored until serious injuries (some requiring surgery) occurred. The families are considering lawsuits against the county that put their prisoners here (Taylor County) as well as CiviGenics. Your county government will be liable if similar situations arise with your inmates.

Moreover, upon release, inmates will be returning to their homes in your area and many will then have the infectious diseases, traumatic injuries and mental and emotional damage resulting from lack of care for which the Dickens jail is notorious. They will require ongoing services that will further impact your county."

Anonymous said...

Your rightabout the litigation.

I'm not not for contracting the jail out, I'm just telling you to watch for it to happen.

Too many close relationships between Smith County and CEC.

Anonymous said...

You got it right about the newspaper because J.B. Smith is right in the middle of the owners and that could be a juicy story!

Did you know the jail inmates are regularly tested for tuberculosis? It is nasty in there, but they want to keep it that way. Looks better for a "new jail".

Here is the DL on the new jail... J.B. wants more power and money. Very necessary when J.B. is a full-blown alcoholic$, gambler$, and pays the highest priced prostitutes$. ADD IT UP. $$$

Anonymous said...

A very large percentage of the Smith County inmates are small-time indigent drug users. If Smith County would build a rehab institution instead of jail, they might have a few law-abiding citizens come out of their system. I've heard that it cost the tax-payor less money to rehab these inmates than for a jail cell.