Sunday, May 17, 2020

TDCJ population hits recent lows thanks to COVID, but the reduction is a phantom that at some point will reverse

Thanks to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's cessation of intake from Texas county jails, the state's prison population has declined to what may be a 21st century low of 135,833. (See this report documenting monthly totals.)

Last year, TDCJ averaged 5,475 new receives per month, so the reduction is attributable almost entirely to the lack of new intake. Nobody extra is getting released.

In fact, the same report tells us fewer people may be released now than before. Some 1,806 fewer people were granted considered for parole in April compared to March, and 654 fewer approved. Many of these folks still must receive treatment services or have discharge plans approved. So that reduction wouldn't affect that many immediate releases last month. But it could set the stage for fewer releases down the line.

Grits wonders if this isn't an issue of practicality rather than policy. I've been assured by legislators that the parole board hasn't altered release policies as a function of the coronavirus. But there are only 8 parole board members and 16 commissioners who make these decisions. It's not hard to imagine that, with schools out, people's kids at home requiring supervision and schooling, difficulties conducting face-to-face parole interviews because of lockdowns, and all the other life disruptions that have come along with the COVID shutdown, workloads could have fallen not because of policy but just because those individuals couldn't process as many cases last month. That's speculation, but it would explain the contradiction between the data and official statements that release policies haven't changed.

Regardless, when TDCJ begins taking inmates from county jails again, we're no doubt going to see a big jump in their population numbers. And at some point, the dip in parole releases, combined with the delayed intake, may push TDCJ's population even above pre-COVID levels.

The report didn't give us recent enough data to say what's happening with probation revocations (much less tell us how that relates to the COVID shutdown). Parole revocations are down about 15 percent over the first four months of 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.

It's also notable that county jail populations overall have declined during the COVID lockdown, even though thousands of TDCJ-bound prisoners are stranded there who normally would have already moved on to state lockups. That means declines in crime/arrests/jail intake, combined with judicial efforts to eliminate low-risk offenders from jails, have had an even larger effect on local jail populations than the backing up of TDCJ-bound inmates.

That's good news. Grits is hopeful that local justice systems will emerge from the COVID era adopting what's been referred to by some as a "new normal," maintaining some of the policies and practices that drove jail populations down into the future, even when the virus isn't influencing decisions.  It's not like we've seen some major crime spike during this period of reduced arrests, expanded pretrial release, and lower jail populations.

Finally, Grits is surprised we haven't heard more, louder complaints from county sheriffs and commissioners over the thousands of inmates backed up in county jails awaiting transfer to TDCJ. These folks cost counties about $60 per day per person and there is no money available to cover those costs. Sheriffs raise bloody hell over the cost of parolees incarcerated over "blue warrants," and that's a much smaller number of folks.

The Governor announced local criminal-justice grants for jails to pay for medical services related to COVID, but they don't cover costs for inmates who normally would have moved on to state prisons. Look for this issue to have a higher profile as the number of state prisoners backed up in county jails continues to mount.

CORRECTION: This post originally said there were 1,800 fewer people paroled in April than March. That number represented those considered for parole. There were 654 fewer people approved. I regret the error. Thanks to Marc Levin for pointing it out: That's excellent and commendable reader behavior. :)


Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

To your concerns regarding not hearing more complaints from officials over the thousands backed up in county jails awaiting transfer to TDCJ: It may not have an effect on you in an election year and the conditions are as they are, but others might choose not to go down that rabbit hole and loose their only means of support might choose differently. The overused canard of "tough on crime" will protect this Racist, Fascist Regime, must see it as it really is: Their attempt to staying in power.

Speaking of the "new normal" which has been motivated by lawyers who are making thousands during what the obligations of our public officials are mandated to do.
The systems will revert to its old pattern of malicious, racist and selected
prosecutions. We as a community have a right and obligation to demand a change to
their Racist, Fascist pattern of treatment on the least of us that can it. If we don't do it, it won't get done. Ase!!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Idk, I think the counties have an interest in complaining, they're the ones stuck with the state's bill. And the biggest counties are controlled by Dems who don't have much interest in covering for Abbott, et. al.

Re: the new normal. While not universal, from conversations with judges, I find that some of them seem almost surprised to have learned how much power they really have over the system. Several have expressed that, and said they don't intend to revert once the crisis has past. Not saying things have fully changed for the better - they haven't - but it's started a conversation that didn't seem possible before.