Wednesday, July 18, 2012

House County Affairs Committee examines jail overcrowding, homelessness and substance abuse

I listened this afternoon to yesterday's House County Affairs Committee's hearing on their interim charge to "Conduct a general study of issues facing county jails." The charge specified that "The study should include innovative ways to address overcrowding, the impact homelessness has on the county jail population, and recommendations for handling inmates undergoing detoxification and withdrawal from drugs and alcohol."

Here's a summary of important or interesting items that stood out from my notes. Your mileage may vary. Those who'd like to watch the hearing for themselves can do so here. The interim charge on county jails begins at the 3:57:50 mark.

The committee opened their discussion with several witnesses from Bexar County whose testimony framed much of the rest of the discussion on this charge, particularly the testimony of Mike Lozito, Bexar County judicial services director.

Average daily population at the Bexar County Jail has declined recently, said Lozito (a trend with which Grits readers will be familiar). Lozito cited a study commissioned in 2003 projecting that the 2012 Bexar County jail population would be 4,800. As of June 1 (pdf) it was 3,504.

Lozito said pretrial services in Bexar County supervises 7,000 people on any given day, and their pretrial intake unit operates 24/7. Last year, he told the committee, they performed:
  • More than 24,000 appointed counsel interviews
  • About 15,000 personal bond interviews,
  • About 11,000 released on personal bonds.
By contrast, much-larger Harris County released just 5,479 defendants on personal bonds, according to their pretrial services division's 2011 annual report (pdf). Harris' data doesn't separate out interviews for personal bonds vs. those for appointed counsel, but overall their pretrial services division performed 79,995 interviews in 2011. So Bexar is using personal bonds much more aggressively among a much smaller jail population than Harris County, according to these data.

Lozito testified that judges order special conditions on supervision of both PR and surety bonds including:
  • Alcohol monitoring
  • Substance abuse treatment
  • Substance abuse testing
  • Special needs caseload
  • Domestic violence caseload
  • GPS monitoring
A couple of thoughts arose upon hearing this. First, it's an example of the growing trend of pretrial punishment, that caused law professors Dan Markel and Eric Miller to opine recently in the New York Times:
It’s understandable for judges to want to attack the social problems they see in the criminal justice system. The problem — besides the obvious issue of assigning punishments to people who might not even be convicted of crimes — is that they are thinking up untested responses on a case-by-case basis. This leads to disparities and fragmentation of penal policy even within jurisdictions; increased scrutiny of suspects at a stage when they should be free to build their defense against the government; and an imposition of the values of the temperance movement on the criminally accused (since even lawful and moderate consumption of alcohol is frequently prohibited). Perhaps most disconcerting is how easy it becomes for regular people to violate these unreasonable bail conditions, which leads to unnecessary arrests and even more overcrowded prisons.

Pretrial release raises complicated legal and policy issues in every case. Still, our core concern is that many judicial release orders exhibit confusion about or disregard for the distinction between pretrial release and post-conviction punishment. Judges determining pretrial release are not authorized to act as social workers or agents of public retribution. They need to stop pretending otherwise.
Second, for those on surety bonds - isn't supervising the defendant pretrial what the bail bond companies are being paid to do? Consultants hired by Harris County back in 2005 complained that the county was subsidizing bail bond companies by imposing special pretrial release conditions that the county then had to monitor. Those consultants asked a question that's still relevant today:
is it desirable to use the Pretrial Services Agency as a kind of publicly-supported guarantor or service provider for surety bond companies? In cases where a defendant on surety bond is released under special conditions that provide for monitoring and supervision by Pretrial Services, such monitoring and supervision should help ensure the defendant's law-abiding conduct and return for scheduled court appearances. One practical effect of this practice is to reduce the bonding company's risk, at no cost to the bonding company.
This pattern of the public assuming risk while the private sector profits is a core source of rot and decay in a capitalist society, but that's what happens when judges impose lots of pretrial conditions that the county must monitor, as described in Bexar and as is common elsewhere, while bail bondsmen pocket their fee. If the county is going to pay for supervision, it makes no economic sense to pay the bail bondsmen, too. The same thing happens wherever such pretrial-release conditions are in heavy rotation.

Another concerning factor: Jail population in Bexar has gone down but demand for mental health beds is going up. So even as crime overall is declining, reliance on jails for mental health services - at least in San Antonio - is increasing. (Quite a bit of the discussion centered on Bexar County diversion programs discussed previously on this blog, so I won't go into them here.)

Lozito called for legislation to shift certain Class B offenses to Class C, particularly for theft where levels have not been adjusted for inflation in 20 years. Make me philosopher king and Grits would tack on low-level marijuana possession and driving with a suspended license to those B misdemeanors moved to Cs: those offenses needn't carry jail time and usually don't. Class Bs costs counties money while Class Cs are for the most part money makers: The public-safety juice from keeping those titular higher penalties isn't worth the taxation squeeze.

Grits has suggested that similar adjustment of theft categories for inflation would allow the state to reduce the prison population enough to close multiple units. Not only would the suggestion reduce prison and jail populations, it speaks to basic fairness. Presently, theft reaches felony levels when the value of what's stolen surpasses $1,500. According to the inflation calculator, "if you were to buy exactly the same products in 2010 and 1993, they would cost you $1500 and $993.29 respectively." Put another way, "What cost $1500 in 1993 would cost $2234.40 in 2010." So one is punished more harshly today for stealing less stuff than was the case when the law was passed. That's true for both petty theft and felony offenses.

Lozito also repeated the counties' frequent request to allow magistrates to set bond for nonviolent technical parole violators. So many county officials want that authority I'm a bit surprised it hasn't happened already.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition sent policy analyst Sarah Carswell to testify. I asked for a copy of her written testimony and have uploaded it here for those interested. According to Carswell, Texas counties are spending an average of $62.79 per person to incarcerate local jail inmates, with jails averaging 12% of county budgets.

Perhaps the most eye-popping item was a chart on page 1 listing cost per day for a number of counties ranging from $40.10 (Chambers) to $92.50 (El Paso). Travis and Williamson were surprisingly high ($89.68 and $90.14, respectively). Legislators puzzled over possible reasons for the differences from the dais. One could speculate, but I also wonder if differences in how the numbers are reported and/or calculated may mean they're not apples to apples comparisons, which would be my theory. (E.g., are jailers' pensions in the jail budget or the pension budget?)

Otherwise, TCJC recommended expanded diversion programs and an array of suggestions articulated more fully in the group's 2010 report on the topic of reducing county jail overcrowding.

Chris Jones from the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) testified against privatization of jails, notifying committee members of a number of private prison horror stories that will be familiar to Grits readers.

I've got a few additional thoughts about the hearing but not time at the moment to record them, with supper on the stove, so let's leave things there.


Anonymous said...

Only those who are truly dangerous or a serious risk of absconding should be held in pre-trial detention. Every one else should be released and should not have to go into debt to make bail. The state should do what the feds did a long time ago: do away with money bonds. It works in the federal system. It would work at the state level too. The problem is, of course, then that would put the bail bondsmen out of money and who'd then pay the bribes to the judges and sheriffs.

Anonymous said...

Silly me! Agreeing with Anon 6:10 one thing that surprises me in my home county is the amount of pre-trial jail detention. Like Anon, I thought this was determined by violence or flight risk potential. Apparently not so...most are nonviolent offenders. And from an expense and medical risk standpoint, the newly jailed are remarkably unstable medically--most have been living under a culvert or even if they are sick they haven't been on their medications, so the potential for serious medical events and/or suicide cant be discounted. The risks that the cities and counties take on boggles my mind--not to mention the risks for the offenders.

The whole damn system is screwy.

Due Process? said...

I thought bond was created to ensure that offenders returne to court?

Apparently it is Probation without due process and you can now be to do and pay damn near everything that an offender is required to do on probation. Unfortunately, there is a limitation to the amount of time you can be on probation and there is no such limitation on bond. A DA can just keep stalling on a hearing and three years later after being on GPS, Substance abuse treatment... you are then placed on 10 years of probatoin with no credit for time no bond supervision.

Most importantly, there are no regulations as to the programs an offender is required to pay for on bond, unlike probation. SO YES, Bond supervision is quickly becoming an unregulated cash cow for counties and another abuse to be use by Prosecutors.

Due Process? said...

Sorry for the spelling, touchpad sucks to type on.

Anonymous said...

This is all about Prisons for profits. It starts with the arrest. Criminal Justice is big business!!!!

Phillip Baker said...

County jails are at the beginning of the corruption of our justice system. Travis County spends more than half its budget on the jail system, last I read. The core issue is failure to respect the principle of guilty until proven innocent. As noted by other commenters, jail/prison is a huge business. Don't hold your breath waiting for any law that would curtail the money made by bail bondsmen. Too many of our legislators have a financial interest in keeping the present system.

Meanwhile, buckle your seat belts, it's gonna be a bumpy ride. Twenty percent of our troops are thought to have some degree of PTSD. Those men and women are already beginning to flood our mental health and justice systems. Some jails try to understand and help. Others, like Comal County, deliberately thwart efforts to get mentally ill vets into care. But do not doubt that our system is about to be swamped by the sheer numbers of vets suffering ill effects of the service WE sent them to do. Mark my words- Today's "heroes" will be tomorrow's homeless and prisoners. And those patriotic folks who slapped those yellow ribbons on their SUV's will blithely avert their eyes from the disgrace of how these "heroes" were treated.

Anonymous said...

Everyone is guilty until proven innocent. What happens if a person wants out of jail in order to avoid losing his/her job, children... and that is the reason they agree to bond supervision? Then 2-5 years of paying out the ass for all the little packed in fees on bond supervision is acquitted or found innocent.
Is that person refunded all the money they paid for GPS, Testing, Commissary...or is that just a courtesy wrap-around?

The Homeless Cowboy said...

What happens if a person wants out of jail in order to avoid losing his/her job, children... and that is the reason they agree to bond supervision? Then 2-5 years of paying out the ass for all the little packed in fees on bond supervision is acquitted or found innocent.
Is that person refunded all the money they paid for GPS, Testing, Commissary...or is that just a courtesy wrap-around?

12:41 That is a good idea, if a person is arrested for an offense and then found not guilty after having paid out the ying yang for months and months for all these fees ( with the exception of commissary, even thigh its highly overpriced) There could be thousands of dollars that the formerly accused person has paid out that they would not have if not for being arrested for a crime they are adjudged not guilty of. They should be reimbursed for all those fees. Bonds, Interlock installation and monitoring M.A.D.D. fees and the untold number of fees and penalties they pile on everyone. I guarantee if the County had to reimburse them they the arrest rate would drop like a stone.

Atticus said...

Some great ideas in these comments but getting bucks back from acounty would be next to impossible. Ideally, all those fees should be escrowed and either refunded if case is dismissed or four N G, or then pd. into County general general fund upon conviction and/or defendant placed on further supervision due to Deferred Adjudication or any other disposition.