Monday, June 13, 2011

Official policies, not "higher crime," cause Potter County Jail crowding

In Amarillo, the Potter County Jail is full and the Sheriff's Office wants to expand, reported the Amarillo Globe News last week ("Potter County examines jail overcrowding," June 9):
[Potter County Chief Deputy Roger] Short said Potter County officials are discussing the possibility of either replacing or expanding the Potter County Detention Center to address overcrowding problems at the facility at 13100 10th St. northeast of Amarillo. He said crowding at the jail puts the safety of officers and inmates at risk.

"It's been an issue for a while. We're staying at capacity," he said. "We don't have room for our own, and we've reached the point where we have to start looking down the road."

The jail houses recently booked offenders and inmates awaiting trial dates. It was built in 1995 for about $12 million. No additions have since been made to the facility, which employs 124 people, 93 of whom are corrections officers. ...

The annual total of inmates at the jail has increased every year since 2008. The facility booked in 7,024 offenders in 2010, up from 6,309 in 2008. ...

"We're just looking at an overburdened court system. With the depressed economy, alcohol and drug use are on the rise," he said. "You can combine all these factors, and we just have higher crime. But the main issue is we're crowded."
Despite Chief Deputy Short's claim that the cause of overcrowding is "higher crime," in reality crime in Amarillo has steadily declined over the last decade just like in most of the rest of the state. Grits compiled this chart depicting total index crimes from annual crime data reported to DPS:

Index crimes reported by the Sheriff's Office are de minimis compared to those handled by the Amarillo PD, but they've also been steadily dropping over the same period, declining by 39% between 2001 and 2009. From these data it's clear that the cause of Amarillo jail overcrowding is not "higher crime" but unnecessary bookings and pretrial detention. As of May 1st, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, a whopping 66% of Potter County Jail inmates were incarcerated awaiting trial, compared to 53% statewide. As is usually the case in such circumstances, decisions by local police, prosecutors, and judges are the source of overcrowding, not the crime rate, which has been dropping. Perhaps that's why county commissioners aren't automatically biting on the jail-building bait, again from the Globe-News:
Commissioner H.R. Kelly said other large projects, such as the $16 million restoration of the county courthouse in downtown Amarillo, have prevented tackling any new projects.

"Right now, the county is kind of at a dire straits as far as having the finances to even consider another jail," he said. "Even adding another pod or two, that's not cheap."

Kelly said he's thinking about proposing measures that would let the jail release offenders with minor misdemeanor charges such as not paying traffic tickets.

Commissioner Joe Kirkwood said he supports placing an ankle-monitoring system on nonviolent offenders.
"When one person goes to jail, it affects their whole family," he said. "You can put them on an ankle bracelet and tell them, 'You can go to work and home.' They're back in society providing for their families."
In addition to those suggestions, Grits would offer several more: Police should begin using authority granted them by the Legislature in 2007 to issue citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors. (In Austin, a 2008 study found that 37% of arrests would have been eligible for citations instead.)

Local judges are incarcerating defendants pretrial at a greater rate than the rest of the state and could quickly reduce overcrowding by setting lower bails for low-level offenses and issuing more personal bonds. If county commissioners wanted to contribute to the latter process, they could create a pretrial services program to evaluate offenders to determine bond levels or eligibility for personal bonds (if they've got one it's operating under the radar: a search of Google and Potter County government sites did not reveal it).

Further, the DA and/or County Attorney's offices could begin screening cases earlier in the process, a tactic which has reduced jail costs in El Paso and Harris Counties.

In any event, the cause of jail crowding in Potter County isn't "higher crime" but decisions and policies by local judges, prosecutors and police. Expanding the jail won't solve the problem if those actors don't change their respective approaches. Indeed, doing so would merely facilitate them continuing inefficient and wasteful practices that have filled up the jail during an era of declining criminality.


Stephanie said...

I just saw a great quote by the Director of the Mississippi DOC in justifying some of their sensible cost-cutting measures (and ones that Texas should be adopting). He says, "we need to decide who we're mad at and who we're afraid of." I would suggest that Potter County as well as Texas as a whole needs to decide how much it's willing to pay to stay mad at someone.

DEWEY said...

"Kelly said he's thinking about proposing measures that would let the jail release offenders with minor misdemeanor charges such as not paying traffic tickets."
Everyone knows that not paying traffic tickets can lead to committing more serious offenses such as littering, jaywalking, or even (gasp!!) loitering !! Lock 'em up for life. (What? ME, sarcastic?? Nah.)

Anonymous said...

This seems to be a reoccurring theme with most county jails in Texas this year. It would appear as if little brother (jail) is trying to emulate the success of (big brother) TDCJ prison system. Expand, it will bring in more moolah and private business opportunities.