Monday, August 22, 2011

Hidalgo County tries house arrest to reduce jail overcrowding

Jared Janes at the McAllen Monitor reports ("New program to supervise inmates outside county jail," Aug. 21) that Hidalgo County will try a version of house arrest for selected offenders and pretrial detainees to reduce chronic jail overcrowding. The story opens:
An Hidalgo County pilot program promises to save the cost of housing prisoners outside of the county’s overcrowded jail by placing the low-risk, non-violent offenders into a house arrest environment.

The alternative incarceration program projects to save the county more than $766,000 in its first year — based on a pilot group of about 50 inmates. The pilot program will help to alleviate the jail overcrowding that forces the county to pay a daily rate of $42 to house up to 200 inmates at the La Villa Detention Center.

But Hidalgo County Sheriff Lupe Treviño, whose office will participate in the program, said it also offers a better alternative than jail for first-time offenders who will be allowed to work and support their families under the supervision of a probation officer.

“Not only is it going to help our overflow problem, but it’s going to give these individuals a second opportunity — like a ‘scared straight’ program,” Treviño said. “You’ve been arrested and you’ve seen what a cell looks like, but I’m going to give you this opportunity to live at home with a productive life and abide by our society rules.”

Administered by the Hidalgo County Adult Probation Department, the alternative incarceration program will place offenders who would normally be incarcerated at the Hidalgo County Jail into a house arrest program that provides service and treatment options to the inmates.

The alternative incarceration program costs little to operate but can make a big dent in inmate housing costs, said Arnold Patrick, the county’s adult probation executive director.

Under the program, the county jail list will be reviewed daily to identify offenders who appear to be candidates for the program. Candidates will be selected based on their offense — the program is off-limits to those charged with violent offenses or felonies — and their prior criminal history.
In an attempt to lower the county’s jail population, the program will target low-risk offenders sentenced to county jail, those awaiting probation hearings or those not eligible for personal recognizance bonds.
I've heard of house arrest being used in sentencing before, but I'm not sure I've seen it suggested as an alternative for pretrial defendants who are "not eligible for personal recognizance bonds," who of course make up the bulk of the jail population. The story conflates pretrial detainees and defendants convicted and sentenced, but those are substantively different categories of folks. How does pretrial "house arrest" jibe with the presumption of innocence? After all, if these folks could afford bail, they'd just be out on their own without supervision. One wonders: Is house arrest really a better or cheaper option than just reducing their bail?

Also, one wonders who will do the selecting for this program - judges or prosecutors - and if it's the latter, will they be willing as a practical matter to reduce the leverage given them by pretrial incarceration in plea negotiations?

That said, I'm pleased to see more counties seeking alternatives to incarceration. The trend seems to reflect a growing view among jurists, prosecutors and corrections officials that jail is not a universal solution, and that the threat of incarceration is a greater deterrent than the reality of it. Except for its use on pretrial detainees, this sounds to me in practice like another version of strong probation. Jail space is a limited resource so "incapacitation" cannot be the primary approach to crime because it's fiscally impossible to lock up everyone arrested ad infinitum. And anyway, only misdemeanor defendants are sentenced to jail time for a max of one year (as opposed to felons who're sent to prison for much longer periods), so in terms of sentencing there are real, temporal limits to using county jails as an incapacitation strategy.

To the extent punishment deters crime, it does so by changing how potential offenders think about their actions and the consequences. As a parent, I learned that often punishing a child for misbehavior punishes the adults as much as the kid (e.g., when she's grounded, I had to stay home too; punishments must be implemented, and doing so is the suckiest part of parenting). Usually the threat of immediate punishment is a greater deterrent than actually punishing. (For every time my daughter was punished, there were many more times when the threat of punishment altered behavior.) Jail time is relatively easy to endure, in practice - three hots and a cot, after all - but in the mind's eye it looms large as a negative experience for all but the most jaded frequent flyers. So community supervision strategies utilizing the threat of jail, for most offenders, work better than using jail as a one-size-fits all approach. It's good to see more counties beginning to realize it..


Anonymous said...

If a misdemeanor offender serves 90 days on house arrest awaiting trial does that count towards time served?

Anonymous said...

Hidalgo County is pretty damn lucky that Arnold Patrick, the executive director, came to them with this program. Not only does it remove low risk offenders from the population, and save the county a great deal of money it allows defendants to continue to work at their jobs, see their own doctors and begin to get necessary services to reduce recidivism. Pretty impressed with the out of the box thinking here.

Anonymous said...

Does this apply to child support