Monday, November 22, 2010

Will county cost cutting doom empty, speculative jail in Waco?

In Waco, a jail built on spec remains less-than-half full, and the local newspaper is fretting that trends toward greater use of diversion programs may reduce demand for McLennan County Jail beds. Reported the Waco Tribune Herald ("Programs to reduce inmates could affect McLennan County jail," Nov 21, subscription only):
State trends are leaning less toward brick-and-mortar jails to solve inmate overcrowding, but local officials are confident the county’s new detention center will eventually reach capacity, with or without programs to divert low-level offenders out of the system.

County administrations around the state are seeking new alternatives, such as pretrial diversion services, to keep inmate populations down, reducing the strain on jails and shipping fewer prisoners to neighboring facilities, state officials said.
This news comes at a time when McLennan County's speculative new jail built to house out-of-county prisoners can't find contracts sufficient to pay back its taxpayer guaranteed debt:
McLennan County’s recently opened 816-bed Jack Harwell Detention Center partially relies on taking inmates from outside counties to generate revenue and pay off the $49 million bond used to construct the facility. But despite having contracts with at least two large counties to accept outside inmates, the center has not reached more than 50 percent capacity since its opening in June.

According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the center reported Nov. 1 that only 39 percent of its beds were in use.
Coryell County, which has been sending overflow inmates to McLennan, has instituted a Supervised Pretrial Services program to identify inmates who should be eligible for personal bonds. "During the program’s pilot period from May 31 through July 31, the county was able release 17 eligible defendants, saving more than $25,000 per month, according to a report by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. The program cost about $150 per week to implement, the report stated." The Trib reports that "About half of the Coryell County Jail pretrial inmates qualify as indigent." It's also interesting to learn that Coryell's use of pretrial supervision was specifically a reaction to the need to raise taxes to expand the jail: "Coryell County has been considering constructing a new, larger jail to alleviate the overcrowding, but residents may balk at raising taxes to fund the venture, said Coryell County Sheriff’s Lt. Kenneth Green."

McLenan County, says the Trib, "has never had a large-scale pretrial diversion services program." And I'm guessing they won't anytime soon, since if they don't maximize the number of inmates in their new, privately run jail the whole thing becomes a "doomsday deal." What a mess.

One interesting if somewhat tangential tidbit at the end of the story relates to the Legislature's penchant for creating new crimes and increasing criminal penalties:
although the detention center is still low on inmates, which could create problems in paying back the facility’s construction bond, Lewis expressed a different fear as the 82nd Texas Legislature prepares to convene.
He’s worried the Legislature could approve new criminal penalty enhancements, either by increasing the minimum sentencing terms for state jail felonies, or by classifying more offenses as felonies.
“Actually, what I’m afraid of is a jail backlog,” he said.
I disagree with Lewis about the jail, but I'm as discouraged as he sounds about the Legislature's fetish with boosting criminal penalties every two years.

Interestingly, according to another Trib story, Harris County has been keeping overflow inmates in the McLennan jail since May but as of last week had yet to pay anything. "County Auditor Steve Moore said Harris County owes about $324,000 in housing costs incurred from June to October." Harris County Sheriff spokesman Alan Bernstein told the paper "a series of mishaps delayed the county in processing the payment," which he said was in the mail.

  • While we're on the subject of pretrial services, the Austin Statesman this weekend had an informative little article (with no particular newshook that I can identify) describing the workings of Travis County's much-more well developed pretrial detention program.
  • See also a recent report from the Pew Charitable Trust on jail overcrowding and pretrial detention titled "Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Cost" (pdf)
See prior, related Grits posts on the McLennan jail fiasco:


Anonymous said...

At this point, wouldn't it be cheaper just to keep it empty? The cost of the building will never go away. But the cost to staff it can.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

The problem is they told taxpayers the jail would be "free" and now they have to explain why that wasn't true. The politicians who promoted this boondoggle now have a stake in making it work whether or not it makes financial sense because if the jail remains empty then it looks like they sold taxpayers a pig in a poke.

It's the political cost they're most worried about, not the financial one.

Anonymous said...

Filling the jail with McLennan County inmates only makes the finances of the new jail worse. McLennan County must then pay the bondholder's Trustee $45.50 per day. As long as the contract operator is there, the County then runs an obligation to the operator of $36.00 per prisoner per day. The new jail has to have out of county inmates paying more than $50 per prisoner per day to break even. Otherwise the operator gets shorted and eventually, the taxpayers will have to pay.

titfortat said...

I’m not interested in government rhetoric that claims success in false positives for the sake of keeping or creating government waste. I continue to opine “stop spending money!” Put tax dollars to use on the back end where it is needed for rehabilitation purposes only, these are badly needed funds that could prove to be very positive at least for some.

All of these diversions are of the sleight of hand type, “oh look we need money over here because we are protecting you and helping them, isn’t it wonderful.”

Sooner or later we will have to come to terms with the drug issue, for every one person they supposedly save ten more that need to be saved are created or for that matter are already in existence. It will remain this way as long as there’s money in it (period).

If we are going to continue to treat a health issue as a criminal issue then instead of setting minimums start setting maximums. No drug or alcohol offense should carry more than 6 months. This is nothing more than a deterrent which is all we can hope for anyway.

Possession of narcotics equals one year unsupervised probation and recidivism equals 1, 2, then 6 months incarceration and unsupervised parole for no more than one year with expungement as reward for success. Successful completion of unsupervised probation also equals expungement.

So in order to fall into the jail time scenario an offense must occur within the probation or parole period.

Possession of less than 2 OZ’s of marijuana equals a fine not to exceed $300. Possession of more puts them in the narcotics possession category. Treat DWI the same. Treat property theft the same way.

Violent offenders including DWI where harm can be demonstrated do time based on the nature of the crime and earn their way out much earlier through genuine rehabilitative counseling and education.

Cut out the probation and parole middle man and base success on recidivism. You got caught doing something you shouldn’t have been doing; we have faith that you are smart enough not to look a gift horse in the mouth.

Pretrial falls into the same category, they should be used only where needed, (if needed at all) on the back end of the pretrial release. Those who can afford bail never stay in jail so don’t be putting the cart before the horse. Those who remain for three days that are not facing felony jail time automatically receive a bail reduction based on the friends and families ability to pay; this can be very effectively demonstrated to the court and protects everyone.

As it is the indigent rarely see the light of day through government pretrial which was their original purpose, not a bunch of drug testing government big brothers. At least someone will be responsible for their court appearances and we really don’t want to examine how responsible government is with our money it won’t be pretty it never is.