Monday, January 21, 2013

If Sheriffs want reimbursement for 'blue warrant' prisoners, will counties reimburse state for incarcerating felons they send? Maybe they should

A commenter pointed to a lengthy report offered up yesterday by the Longview News-Journal's Sarah Thomas ("Jail officials seek reimbursement or bail for prisoners with blue warrants," Jan. 20) giving voice to the Sheriffs Association of  Texas' biennial lament that they must house prisoners jailed on "blue warrants," which means they've somehow violated their terms of parole and are being held until a hearing that will determine whether they're revoked back to prison:
Members of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas met this past week to prepare for battle again with state lawmakers over an issue costing area taxpayers.

The contention is blue warrants, which are issued by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division. They act as an order to arrest and hold parole violators in county facilities without bail or reimbursement — and therein lies the problem.

The biennial battle between county sheriffs and the Texas Legislature centers around counties being required to feed, bed and provide medical treatment for the state’s inmates, often for months at a time.

Sheriffs across the state are looking for the 83rd Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would make parole violators eligible for bail or require state reimbursement to counties for their services.

“This is the No. 3 issue on our list after mental health and border security,” said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk.
Notice that, like the police unions and prosecutors, the Sheriff's Association these days sees the Legislature as an opponent against whom they must "prepare for battle," in Thomas' words. Here are the latest data on blue warrants from a side bar accompanying the story:

Blue warrants by the numbers

Here's the December 1, 2012 county jail population report (pdf)  from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, where they appear to have gotten their data, with one key exception: I have no idea where that last "no beds available" bullet comes from. Texas jails were at 68% of capacity statewide and by my count, just ten counties reported occupancy rates above 90%. Two of them were quite small (Duval and Ochiltree) and several others' occupancy rates were boosted by contract prisoners held for other agencies (McLennan, El Paso, Fannin). With 614 contract prisoners compared to just 90 parolees, El Paso's full jail is volitional; ditto for Fannin. Regular readers may recall that high jail costs from "tuff on crime" policies by the new McLennan County DA have become a political issue as the county has been forced to raise taxes to pay for rising jail costs.

Four mid-sized counties - Hidalgo, Ector, Webb and Parker, five if you include McLennan - were the largest jails at more than 90% capacity with only homegrown prisoners. There were 292 parolees in those five jails, which collectively held 3,525 inmates on December 1, meaning 8.2% of the total inmates in those few, crowded jails were there for blue warrants. The big outlier among them, though, was McLennan County, where for reasons this writer fails to fully understand, alleged parole violators made up 13.2% of the county jail population, compared to 7.6% in Hidalgo County, 7.9% in Ector County, 4.8% in Parker County, 5.6% in Walker, and 5.1% in Webb. Why would the number be so much higher in McLennan? The question deserves further investigation.

Looking beyond those few, crowded jails to the big picture, however, compared to just a few years ago when the largest Texas counties exceeded capacity and Harris County was shipping prisoners off to Louisiana, Texas' jail overcrowding problems have largely subsided statewide, especially in the largest jurisdictions. More could be done, and indeed a time of declining crime might be just the historical moment to do it, but the jail overcrowding crisis isn't nearly as immediate as it was just a few sessions ago, for a variety of reasons.

The Sheriffs face two big barriers to passing their blue warrant bill: 1) the Legislature does not appear to be in the mood to pick up more county costs (e.g., a request to pay for unfunded mandates related to indigent defense was rebuffed in the initial House and Senate budgets.), and 2) Governor Rick Perry already vetoed legislation to allow bail for parole violators six years ago, so as long as he's Governor, he's the main person that needs convincing. Perry did sign a new law last session allowing parole officials to use summons instead of "blue warrants" in some circumstances where the parolee did not pose an flight risk or immediate threat, but I've seen no data on how often, if at all, that new authority has been used.

There's an extent to which Grits sympathizes with the Sheriffs on this issue and I've supported their bill  to allow bail for blue warrants, although jail populations have declined since the governor's veto and the immediate need to free up space has lessened in the largest jurisdictions. But in the big picture, the counties wouldn't want the fiscal logic they suggest applied across the system. Would county prosecutors seek such long sentences if the state billed the local county-commissioners court for the cost of defendants' incarceration, including the medical bills for elderly prisoners, etc.? If the state agreed to pay for 100% of blue-warrant costs, would the counties in turn agree to pay the cost for the state to incarcerate everyone they send to TDCJ? Not a chance. So in the big picture, such complaints ring hollow, though the short-term costs the Sheriffs are reacting to are certainly real enough.


Anonymous said...

About the same idiotic thinking that applies to sex offenders on state parole. The state of Texas implements all conditions for a sex offender released from TDCJ-ID on parole. Then the sex offender has to register with a city police department. Why is state parole in charge of everything involving a sex offender except their registration? It's just another example of how the state passes the buck ($ literally) onto others with no oversight or recourse.

Anonymous said...

A bill calling for parole bonding will result in less inmates making parole since there is a high number of indigent inmates in TDCJ. Parole Bonding is being pushed by ALEC and their criminal buddies on Wall Street. Imposing a bond on someone who does not have a job and no resources is stupid. If the Sheriff's in Texas want these violators in their county all they have to do is not arrest them. Let's see how long they remain sheriff. County government in Texas is lazy and corrupt. It doesn't surprise me to see the Sheriff's Association of Texas push ALEC legislation. Texas Sheriff's need to put up and shut up about the issue. I would be glad to replace my Sheriff if they allow violators to roam my county. All I see in Texas is the Sheriff's Department drive around in brand new SUV's, while state agencies drive old worn out vehicles. It looks like most counties can afford to feed the parole violators, while the state is limited on their resources. If the Counties in Texas are that broke, quit building new jails every five years and buying new SUV's for county bureaucrats who do nothing but sight see all day.

Anonymous said...

Two of three county sheriff's mentioned in teh article, Harrison and Cass, are retired game wardens.

In particular, the Cass County sheriff just took office on January 1. When he talks about his jail being overpopulated and having to house them with Gregg County, he fails to mention or doesn't realize is Cass County's incarceration rate. #15 in the state @ 3.85. Nor does he mention 22 misdemeanor only charged inmates in his jail.

That old "possum cop" got a lot to learn before he speaks.

Anonymous said...


it says that McClennan County is housing 352 inmates somewhere else but here

it says McClennan 1(P) is empty with 296 beds empty.

Anonymous said...

Where does the state presently receive money from to pay for those in TDCJ?

Anonymous said...

When the state issues a blue warrant, they have absolutely no intention of seeing this person back in prison. they call it jail therapy. The inmate usually sits in jail for 30 days or so, and is reinstated or paroled in abstentia. TDCJ is merely using the locals to do the parole officers job for them.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

6:09, McLennan leased an old facility to a private company and now has to pay that company a fee to house county prisoners in their own facility because of overincarceration. I'm guessing that's the source of the "housed elsewhere" figure.

8:12, that's certainly true some of the time; not all.

1:13, Texas sheriffs have wanted this as long as I've been coming to the capitol, I'm not sure you can blame ALEC for it.

Anonymous said...

Let Pretrial departments in each county bail them out, they are a failing system anyway.

Skifool said...

Why don't the counties just refuse to enforce the blue warrant and let them out anyway, like El Paso and Nueces Counties did years ago. This in spite of clear direction by the legislature. The biggest problem with allowing bonds for parole violators is that the violation is not the measure of the dangerousness of the parolee and the people making the bonding decisions cannot understand that. And the Parole Division does not want to be in the business of deciding bond matters. For instance, you have a serious child sex offender who was released on mandatory supervision under the old laws (not by decision of a panel of the Board of Pardons and Paroles). He hangs out by a school. Not a crime but a serious violation. So some local yokel lets the guy out on bond? I don't think so.

Anonymous said...

On the other hand, if these were first time offenders with plenty of money to spend on commissary, jails would be more than happy to let them rot their ass off behind bars.

Anonymous said...

I have just learned how corrupt Harris County police and parole is after my husband was arrested on a blue warrant for assaulting me and leaving the country without permission. Harris county sheriff told me to go get his car out of impound after the arrest and inside was a half empty bottle of whiskey and a report from the hospital that he was treated for alcoholism! They didn't give him a DUI or arrest for open container. Then his parole officer lied under oath at the parole revocation hearing did not allow evidence of his alcoholism and he got 60 days of ISF and no alcohol or anger management domestic violence treatment. Why bother arresting him? Lol he told me parole and Harris county police are stupid. Now I believe him.