Sunday, November 02, 2008

Economy may doom Smith County's jail building aspirations

An AP story published in the Houston Chronicle says the economy may doom Smith County's jail bond proposal on Tuesday's ballot:

The most contentious local bond election Tuesday in Texas might be in Smith County, where voters in the ultraconservative heart of East Texas could reject a jail expansion proposal for the fourth time in three years. Each have been sound defeats that came in better times for taxpayers.

The latest pitch is a $59.6 million, 694-bed addition offered in a widening national financial crisis. Like other local ballot measures Texas, the plan could be sunk by economic fears.

"They're whole-package conservatives here," said state District Judge Cynthia Kent, who leads the opposition to a new Smith County jail. "They're law and order, but they're also conservative about giving us more of their money."

Financially squeezed taxpayers elsewhere may feel the same. More than 50 school districts in Texas are asking voters to approve tax hikes Tuesday, hoping to fare better than at least two dozen districts that have already been rejected by voters in tax rollback elections.

In Dallas County, a $747 million package to build a new Parkland Memorial Hospital is among the largest bond proposals in the state. Without any organized opposition, the crumbling economic climate may be the biggest hurdle.

"There's so much bad economic news nationally," said Bernard Weinstein, director of the Center for Economic Development and Research at the University of North Texas. "Consumer confidence is falling off a cliff. That could affect voter outcomes."

It's a possibility even jail supporters in Smith County concede.

Burglarize a home in Tyler and jurors will "sock it to you here," longtime Smith County Sheriff J.B. Smith reminded. But when it comes to more jail space to house suspects, three proposals since 2006 have failed with 63, 86 and 68 percent of the vote.

Five nights a week, jail vans leave Tyler to deliver inmates to neighboring counties or haul them back for court appearances. Smith said $12 million has been spent since 2004 leasing outside beds; 151 inmates from Smith County were locked up elsewhere in East Texas as of Monday.

Sheriff Smith goes on to claim that "Even when all the beds aren't full, ... 10 to 15 percent are needed to ensure, say, DWI offenders aren't locked up with suspected murderers." That sounds a little high to me; I've heard it said 5-7% of beds needed to stay empty for that purpose, not 10-15%. It sounds to me like he's overstating the number of empty beds he must maintain just like he overstated the threat of federal litigation forcing the county to construct a new jail: Because Judge Cynthia Kent's jail diversion program has worked so well that currently the county has space in the jail but still chooses to pay for outside beds.

Crunch the numbers for yourself. As of October 1, Smith County's jail had a capacity of 755 but only housed 675 people. Of those, 47 weren't actually county inmates but were being held on contract for some other entity (probably the feds) for a fee. So on October 1, there were 628 county inmates in the jail, and another 107 housed in other counties. That means Smith County's current "demand" is 735 total county inmates and it has a jail designed for 755.

Just a few more tweaks and funding for new diversion programs would easily reduce that number to something more manageable. El Paso, for example, reduced the time defendants wait in jail pretrial by 18 days by introducing a direct filing system. Tyler's police department and the Sheriff have refused to let officers use new authority given by the Legislature to give summons instead of arresting petty misdemeanants. And Judge Kent has proposed a litany of jail diversion proposals, of which the commissioners court only chose to back one.

That program's success is what's lowered Smith County's numbers to where they are, and if they'd enact the veteran judge's other ideas, I've little doubt the overcrowding problems would be completely alleviated for the time being. If a new jail were to pass, I think that'd be the last we'd hear about alternatives from the commissioners court, so I welcome the prediction that economic bad times might spook voters into rejecting the jail, again.

Perhaps after voters reject the Smith County Commissioners fourth jail proposal in three years, they'll finally get serious about incarceration alternatives instead of merely dabbling with the idea while they plot to double their jail capacity.

RELATED: See recent coverage from the Tyler Morning Telegraph:


Anonymous said...

The sheriff says it has cost 12 million over the 5 years to house and transport these prisoners.

Over that same time period, how much would it have cost taxpayers in personnel expenses (Salary, retirement, insurance, workers comp, overtime, holiday pay, etc.)if Smith County were in a new jail and had to hire more jailers to guard these prisoners?

When he said 12 million, did he deduct the revenue Smith County is making from the federal prisoners they house?

People in jail charged with DWI can be housed with murderers. It depends on an inmate's classification. Max's cannot be housed with a minimum. He knows that. It is possible for someone charged with murder to be classified as medium. Even if someone charged with murder is classified as a maximum, someone charged with DWI may have a classification of medium. Max's and mediums can be housed together. He knows that too.

Or maybe I'm giving him too much credit and he really doesn't know the first thing about classifying inmates!

Most DWI offenders bail out the next day anyway, unless of course bail is set so high as to purposely cause an overcrowding situation or a jp is in cahoots with a bail bondsman. An arrestee can remain in holding for 72 hours before going to general population anyway.

Custody reassessments are supposed to be conducted within 30-90 days of the initial classification. The inmate's classification may go up, may go down.

Bottom line here, Sheriff Smith is the consumate politician and charmer and is misleading folks with these kinds of statements. That's what politicians, or I should say long tenured politicians do.

Anonymous said...

The jail was doomed whether the economy was good or bad. I think we will see 75 to 85 percent against it this time.

Anonymous said...

The citizens of Galveston are suffering under a brutal and corrupt police force. The Galveston Police Department makes approximately 8000 arrests a year, for a population of 57,000 plus

Harmful officers are retained and continue their patterns of abuse.

I implore anyone involved in civil rights advocacy, et cetera who is reading this excellent blog to help stop these terrible civil rights abuses.

The situation is really dire. Although only 50 miles from Houston Galveston is in a time warp and procedures there seem to have come from the pre-Civil Rights era.

The Galveston arrest rate is nearly 5 times the arrest rate for New York City even after factoring in tourists and commuters. Galveston arrest rate per capita: 11.7%, NYC's arrest rate per capita: 2.5%.

So Galveston's arrest rate is nearly 5 times that of NYC.

Here's the math to support the data:

Galveston PD data shows between approximately 8000 arrests per year.

Galveston population if 57,000 (pre-Ike)

To get the percentage rate take number of arrests (8000) and divide by population of 57000.

Galveston's arrest rate is thus:
14.3% compared to a national urban arrest rate of 5%

Now let's factor in tourists, commuters

Let's take Galveston's average number of tourists of 4.1 million (generally acknowledged by islanders to be a significant overestimate) and divide it by 365 - to get how much greater the population is due to tourists on a daily basis

4,100,000 divided by 365 equals 11,232 - so taking into account the tourist population we have an extra 11,232 people on the island daily

Now let's add that number 11,232 to number of Galveston residents, for a total of 68,233

Now we'll divide the number of arrests annually, 8000, by our new population & tourists number of 68,233 to get the arrest rate per capita
We get .117 so even factoring in the tourist numbers, Galveston has an arrest rate of 11.7%

Now let's compare to NYC stats when we factor in tourists and commuters?

NYC has approximately 46,000,000 visitors staying in hotel rooms each year. (source NYC tourism)

Divide by 365 and we get an extra population of 127,000 per day. Additionally, 3.8 million people per day commute to the borough of Manhattan.

Sum these and we get 3,927,000 more people daily than are included in the census population numbers

We'll add this number to our NYC U.S. census population number of 8,214,426 to get the total daily population of
12,141,497 people

Now we'll divide the total number of arrests in NYC annually by the total daily population

314,424 annual arrests (source NY division of criminal justice) divided by 12,141,497 equals .025 or an arrest rate of 2.5 percent per capita of daily population