Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Hypothesizing causes of Dallas County Jail population decline

The Dallas County Jail has dipped to its lowest population in recent memory and local officials can't agree why. Admittedly, it's hard to pin down a cause, though Grits could also make the case that the total should be even lower. See Dallas Morning News coverage from Naomi Martin.

The News placed some of the blame on declining numbers of arrests by officers: "Arrests by Dallas police are down. In 2017, Dallas police made roughly 4,200 arrests per month on average, city records indicate. In 2010, when staffing levels peaked, the department made 6,343 arrests per month."

However, crime is also down from 2010, so it's possible there are fewer arrests because there is less crime.

Plus, the number of cases processed didn't decline with the number of arrests, particularly felony cases which account for most pretrial incarceration. From the Office of Court Administration (whose data only goes through 2016), here are the recent total felony cases added to Dallas District Courts by fiscal year:
2012: 34,779
2013: 35,015
2014: 35,880
2015: 38,614
2016: 36,688
By contrast, there was greater fluctuation over that period in the number of indigent felony defendants appointed a lawyer in Dallas (see OCA annual statistical supplements, criminal case activity by county for district courts):
2012: 25,182
2013: 37,072
2014: 40,446
2015: 25,370
2016: 18,474
Grits doesn't completely understand what's going on there - either why caseloads aren't more related to arrests (though I have some hypotheses), or why the number of appointed counsel fluctuates so much, or for that matter why it dipped so low in 2016. And I don't know whether any of these things relate directly to recent jail population declines.

County officials took credit for the reduction, and it seems likely the programs they're touting had some effect:
Dallas County officials took a victory lap claiming credit for the reduction. Since 2012, the county has made lowering the jail population a top priority to cut costs, for both the county and for people arrested on minor charges. They say they have added diversion programs, streamlined booking and court processes, updated software and increased the use of electronic ankle monitors.
Looking at jail population reports from December 2012 and December 2017, a few things stand out. Overall, the inmate population at the Dallas County Jail was 17 percent lower in 2017 than in 2012.

The category of jail inmate with the biggest numerical reduction - felony defendants detained pretrial - represented a modest statistical decline of just 17%. Much less numerous state-jail-felony inmates being held pretrial declined by 44%. And also less-numerous parole violators being held prior to a hearing declined by 57% over this period.

So if felony court caseloads stayed about the same but felony pretrial defendants are the biggest source of reduction, that may speak to Dallas judges letting more people have personal bonds or low bails rather than fewer arrests being the cause, or to the streamlining efforts touted by the county. Indeed, since the last couple of  years coincided with a reduction in defendants receiving appointed counsel in Dallas, that implies the judges have played an even more important role, because the defendants are less likely to be represented.

So for Grits' money, this probably represents a technocratic success - intentionally streamlining systems and doing more with less - than it does some macro-level change. The biggest part of the reductions in the police force in Dallas took place before 2017, so any resulting arrest decline would have shown up gradually over time in reduced felony caseloads, not all at once as is being suggested.


Gadfly said...

Alternative theory:

"Lupe Valdez running for governor and wanting not to appear too hardass on crime." (And planning that in advance.)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Nah, I doubt it. She doesn't control the jail population, she just manages it. Plus, in most of Texas, a Sheriff running for Governor would emphasize tuff-on-crime memes if the motivation were political.

Les Smith said...

You may want to review the Smart Justice Jail Diversion project (Behavioral Health) managed by Michael Laughlin and other mental health programs within the Dallas County Criminal Justice System. This Smart Justice Jail Diversion project (Behavioral Health) recently developed, is a $7 million Grant-funded program is a partnership between the Courts, Jail, attorneys, Pretrial Office, and service providers to more quickly and accurately identify and redirect high-need mentally ill defendants away from lengthy/more consequential criminal justice system involvement. From my perspective as the past Tarrant County Criminal Justice Coordinator (Retired December 18, 2017) Dallas County has been the leading this effort throughout Texas.

Les Smith

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ Les Smith, do you think that's a partial cause of recent declines, or has the program not been in place long enough?