Sunday, March 25, 2012

Gitting tuffer on plea deals boosting McLennan County Jail costs

The changing of the guard at the McLennan DA's Office (Waco) in 2010 appears to have resulted in an overcrowded, over-budget county jail as the new District Attorney rejects more plea deals, forcing defendants to wait in jail longer, judging from a Waco Tribune Herald report this week ("McLennan County Sheriff out of money for prisoner overflow," March 21, behind paywall). The Sheriff has requested emergency funds for the jail, blaming "the rapid spending on an unexpected and prolonged increase in the county’s jail population." Reported the Trib:
[Sheriff's Captain Paul] Wash said when the sheriff’s office prepared its current budget last spring, the county on average was housing 30 to 40 inmates each day at Harwell.

But by the time the commissioners court approved the budget in August, the inmate population at the county jail started climbing. In the fall months, the sheriff’s office sent an average of 175 to 200 inmates to Harwell [a privately run facility where the county must pay by the head].

The county had 130 inmates at Harwell as of midnight Monday. Plemons said the county jail had only 28 vacant inmate beds.
The Sheriff's office couldn't give a definitive cause, citing classification issues (male/female, violent, non-violent) sometimes creating inefficient allocations. But Wash said the main problem is quantitatively more inmates housed at the jail, stemming either from "an increase in arrests made by law enforcement agencies throughout the county, or [else] fewer inmates are being offered or accepting plea deals, thus staying in jail longer while awaiting trial," the paper reported.

The data isn't available yet (to me, anyway) to tell for sure, but Grits believes DA decision making and policy changes are the more likely cause of extra inmates than increased arrests. After all, crime statewide has been declining and Waco is among the cities that saw a massive drop in traffic enforcement by local police in 2011, with municipal courts processing just under 14,000 traffic cases in 2011 compared to 19,582 in 2010. That's more than a 28% drop. Since so many arrests on other charges originate at traffic stops, it seems unlikely there were significantly more arrests in McLennan County in 2011 with traffic tickets down that much and overall crime trending downward. Indeed, just last year the same reporter was lamenting declining inmate numbers at the jail and exploring the cause of lower crime rates to explain them.

Instead, it's far more likely changes in plea bargaining stances by rookie DA Abel Reyna account for the biggest difference. There was a report just last month about  the DA's office implementing a strict policy on DWIs that caused Reyna's former law partner Damon Reed to predict rising costs for the county:
Reed said the result of the new policy is not justice and only will force defendants to plead “open to the court” seeking a better deal with a judge. In “open” pleas, offenders plead guilty and ask judges to set punishments without the benefit of plea agreements.

The other option is to go to trial, further clogging court dockets and costing taxpayers more to operate the judicial system, Reed said.

“Abel is clearly doing all this for political purposes,” Reed said. “I don’t understand why he has a budget for so many assistant prosecutors when they are not allowed to do their jobs. I’ll buy him a rubber stamp and he can lay a half-dozen prosecutors off and save the county a whole lot of money.
Now we see it's not just court dockets clogged as a result of this and similar plea-bargain policies but also the county jail. If the DA is negotiating fewer plea deals with DWI (and presumably other classes of) defendants, no wonder the jail population is rising! Moreover, the timing of Waco's jail population rise coincides roughly with the new DA's changes in plea bargaining policies.

In fact, the McLennan DA's example is almost a case study of tuff-on-crime policies equating directly to getting tuff on the taxpayers, with little identifiable public safety benefit. Jails and criminal justice generally are behemoths in county budgets, and small policy changes can have big budget consequences. Whether county commissioners, reporters or for that matter McLennan County voters make the connection is another matter. But those who want to avoid county tax hikes should dislike Reyna's new plea policies based on budget considerations unless a stronger case can be made that increased pretrial detention boosts public safety. In most instances, certainly on routine DWIs, the cost-benefit analysis just isn't there to support it.


Anonymous said...

The better question might be why "routine" DWI defendants can't make bond.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I'm not sure it's a "better" question. Both are worth inquiries. Judges setting bond play a big role, as do DA's recommendations on bond as well as charging and plea bargaining decisions. But when considering the McLennan County situation, the judges are mostly the same as before. The DA and his announced, new plea bargain policies are the changed variable in the equation.

The Fishing Physicist said...

Methinks Herr Reyna has taken lessons from Smith County....

Gritsforbreakfast said...

TFP, it was Williamson County, actually, where Reyna hired his First Assistant because he admired John Bradley's shop. (Or at least that's what he told the local paper at the time.) Same difference.

The Homeless Cowboy said...

"He admired John Bradley's shop"
Well folks that right there is enough for me to wonder how could any intelligent person vote for this man? I wonder who he has chosen for a trip to Huntsville for no reason, perhaps someone will have to surrender their life for his political ambitions. The man gets into office and the County budget goes haywire because he wants everyone arrested to stay in jail as long as he can keep them there no matter the the County cannot do "like pay to feed and house them" possibly they could close a couple of schools so he can be tough on those 1st offense DWI cases and those other horrible people. No doubt there are probably some real criminals thrown in there, but he lessens the impact of their crimes by making every person arrested stay in jail by denying valid plea agreements. God Bless the good people of McLennan County My prayers are with you, I hope you are not the one selected to suffer the Bradley modled wrath of your Fuhrer of prosecution, dont forget HE is immune from prosecution for whatever HE does to you. Have a great day.

Anonymous said...
Very complex subject. While Gritsforbreakfast is the greatest resource on corrections, I disagree with this position. I believe the expense to taxpayers is due to the commissioners court covering the debt on the private jail after COP pulled inmates out. The DA campaigned on being tough on crime. He got elected on that platform. The amazing thing is he is actually doing what he said he would.

Anonymous said...

Of course the DA said he was going to be tough on crime. Who would vote for someone that would say the opposite? They all say that, don't 'ya think?

Just because he ran on the usual, worn out, "tough on crime" platform does not mean he should ignore Constitutional requirements (with exposure to civil liability claims) or make policy changes that overflow the jail, all at the expense of the taxpayers.

Reyna wants law enforcement to trump charges as high as possible. Reyna does not want defense attorneys to communicate with prosecutors until after someone arrested has been indicted, which could be 90 days.

Reyna does not notify the jail when a case has been refused. The guy who stayed in jail 183 days extra is likely just the tip of the iceberg. To keep someone in jail with no charges is costly AND exposes the county to civil liability.

To take an obnoxious stance on all plea deals will result in more suspects opting to set the case for trial and staying in jail until that happens.

No doubt the Commissioners Court should never have built another jail via CEC. They should have looked more closely at other ways to reduce the population. Electronic monitoring and PR bonds are a couple of examples.

However, it is the DA, the John Bradley wanna be, that values conviction over justice and sets policies that help achieve his goal that is the primary contributor to the current state of affairs.

This would have happened with or without the new jail.

Anonymous said...

Lets not just blame the D.A. for the overcrowding in the county jails. Alot of the crowding has to do with the judges rejecting plea deals that are brought before the court. Why doesn't judges give non-violent offenders who have no criminal history and have been able to stay out of trouble and have been employed be given the opportunity for probation. Even if it's the maximun time of probation, a non violent offender should be given a chance. Let's look at Judge Matt Johnson's sentencing record. He is one of our State Judges with the highest rejection of plea deals. Why? He afraid of getting voted out. After all wouldn't he also qualify as someone who is running the county budget for rejected all plea deals that dont require prison time? So lets not only look at our local D.A. but also our State judges and see if they are also part of the problem. If we dont, expect our taxes to increase next year or see cut in services.