Wednesday, March 09, 2011

When fewer inmates is a big problem: Perverse incentives and the McLennan County Jail

A reader forwards me a rather odd article from the Waco Tribune Herald (subscription-only) titled "Inmate decline puzzles officials," that plays the role of apologist for a series of very bad management decisions by the McLennan County Commissioners Court.

Here's the backstory: McLennan County a few years ago blew past all suggestions that they consider jail diversion strategies and built an 816-bed jail they don't need, thinking they could have a private prison company manage the thing and lease the extra beds for a profit. "The original construction proposal for the jail states the facility needed to be 90 percent full to generate enough housing revenue to cover operation costs and repay the bond debt."

Now, lamented reporter Regina Dennis in Sunday's paper, "A sudden and unexpected drop in inmates in jails has perplexed corrections researchers and law enforcement officials across the country." The crux of the story explores the causes of this decline, not from a perspective of whether or not it's a positive development for humanity but mainly as it pertains to where the county might find extra inmates to fill their Boondoggle Bastille. Still, some interesting perspectives were explored:

Large Texas counties and the states have dropped out of the market as customers for private prison bed services, wrote Dennis, but the federal Bureau of Prisons remains a potential customer with seemingly limitless growth potential (mostly, she failed to add, because of immigration detention). "Federal Bureau of Prisons Spokesman Ed Reed said the agency had a steady increase in prisoners each year for the past few decades. The agency will soon open new facilities this year to handle the growing prison population, including a 1,280 bed medium-security prison in Berlin, N.H."

Dennis quotes "Paige Harrison, a statistician in the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ correctional division, [who] said lower crime rates during the past decade likely contributed to the decline. Crime rates have dropped by 11 percent between 2000 and 2008, she said." Of course, that crime decline was already well underway when McLennan County decided to build its extra jail. This isn't a new development, crime's been declining steadily since the mid-'90s. But at some point, if fewer people commit crimes you'd expect the number of people in jail to fall, wouldn't you?

Even so, strangely enough, "the number of new bookings each month in McLennan County has gone up, suggesting less crime may not be the cause of the local inmate decline. ... the McLennan County Jail averaged 3,493 bookings each month in 2007. This February, there were 3,604 new bookings." So Waco has seen less crime but slightly more jail bookings. That means it's likely changes in how cases are processed that explains the reduced jail numbers.“'When you see a downward trend in incarceration, counties are generally just trying to get inmates out on quicker docket calls, quicker judgment calls, quicker bonding procedures, alternative incarceration, things of this nature,' said [Adan] Munoz, of the jail standards commission.” Assigning two judges to felony cases has sped up trial dates in recent years, the Trib reported, from a year or more's wait to 4-8 months. That alone would explain the decline.

Another interesting theory tossed out: Having felons serve their sentences day for day could be reducing the number of parole violators in county jails, since if they're not being supervised they can't be arrested for violations: “'Instead of releasing (prisoners) conditionally on parole, some states are using expiration of sentence, which is (when prisoners) serve their full sentence and then they’re released,' Harrison said. 'Early indicators suggest that if you’re not watching recently released inmates, they’re not going to come back into your purview. The more you watch them, the more you will find in terms of parole violations.'”

Ironically, perhaps the county's best hope for filling its empty jail would be if the Legislature guts probation programming in its current budget! “'When the county court-at-law judge has the choice of either putting somebody on probation or putting them in jail, and they’ve done away with the money to support the probation, he’s got two choices — either let them go or put them in jail,' [County Judge Jim] Lewis said. 'The judge is not going to just turn them loose.'” Of course, for counties with full jails who don't want a massive influx of new inmates, that policy would be a catastrophe for exactly the same reasons Lewis is banking on it.

Bottom line: McLennan County's problem is not that incarceration rates are declining per se, but that the local commissioners court essentially made a financial bet backed by the taxpayers on them increasing, the way a gambler feels more free to play the roulette wheel when betting with other people's money. In a year or so, if they can't find a customer, the whole financial house of cards will come tumbling down, with the county either bailing out the Boondoggle Bastille or taking a big, expensive hit on its bond rating on all its debt going forward. And IMO it was as predictable as the sunrise.

See prior Grits posts:


A Texas PO said...

Sounds like McLennan County CSCD might have a swank new day reporting center/community corrections facility or TDCJ may have a great new facility for an ISF if funding isn't gutted. Oh, politicians and their consistent lack of foresight.

Shadowguv said...

What a sorrowful, disappointing example of a criminal justice system gone wrong. There must be tremendous pressure on local law enforcement, prosecutors, and the courts to keep those beds full. All to prevent (delay more likely) financial losses to the county.

What's the benefit to taxpayers in taking this gamble? A tiny, incremental savings on their property taxes? Hardly worth the risk.

Isn't it obvious that by creating a profit motive, more inmates = more revenue, that the pursuit of justice gives way to expedience, cash flow, and bond ratings?


rodsmith said...

yea my county here in florida did the same thing. spent millions building a big new country jail. ran 200+ inmates with 1/2 being state prisons. Then state pulled it's contract but for some reason the number of prisoners actually went up. Country just started making more stuff illegal and upping inforcmetn of BS charges that used to be tossed.

got to keep those beds filled one way or another