Monday, June 14, 2021

Travis County jail expansion makes no sense, so of course they might do it anyway

For many years, combating unnecessary jail expansion around the state was a central focus of this blog. But over time, the jail building boom relented and this blog roamed in other directions. So I'm surprised to find myself drug back into the debate on my home turf, with politicians I've known for years leading the charge to build new jail space Travis County doesn't need. I'd hoped we were past this.

The issue is construction of a new women's jail, a proposal originating in the county's 2016 strategic plan. The county will vote tomorrow on whether to spend $4.3 million to plan construction for a proposed $80 million women's jail expansion, though high construction prices due to recent commodity price spikes make it likely the costs would be higher.

But a lot has happened since 2016, most notably that the jail population has plummeted, starting before COVID then accelerating over the last year. County Judge Andy Brown and Commissioner Ann Howard have proposed a resolution to reevaluate the 2016 plan in light of current needs.

At this point, the jail is less than half full. Among women, most of them remain in the jail less than three days. Of the current population, only about 40 women have been incarcerated longer than that.

Spending $80 million on facilities that will mostly benefit so few women makes no sense. Yes, it's true bond money can only be spent on facilities. But bond PAYMENTS come from the same tax revenues that fund every other part of the budget. The idea that this investment doesn't compete with resources for services simply doesn't hold water and apologists for the new jail should stop saying it. We all know where the money to make debt payments comes from!

Even more disingenuous are those who raise the "murder spike" to argue for expanded jail space. Most murder suspects aren't women, and most people in jail aren't murderers. Anyway, the new facilities wouldn't be ready for four years! Short-term crime trends aren't an argument for long-term capital investments, especially when there's so much vacant jail space to begin with.

All sorts of factors have contributed to Travis County's jail population reduction and make it likely it will be sustained. Judges who began using more expansive pretrial release protocols to save lives during COVID say they largely intend to continue them once COVID abates. The county has largely ceased prosecuting marijuana cases, and many other nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level felonies are being handled through front-end, pretrial diversion. A new public defender's office is just getting set up but will soon provide more defendants better representation, making pretrial release more likely.

At a minimum, the jail population reduction in the five years since the 2016 plan provided breathing room for the county to reevaluate. Back then, the jail already had more people in it than it does today and lumber prices weren't through the roof. There's simply no need to build more jail space now and from a cost perspective, it's a bad moment to do so. Let the overheated lumber markets die down and give the system time to see if the reductions will be sustained. There's no immediate pressure to do otherwise.

In many ways, this is a bizarre debate. Usually, when Grits argues against new jail spending, jails are full and I'm suggesting diversion programs and cohorts of arrestees who can be safely released as an alternative to jail expansion. But in this case, Travis County faces none of those pressures.

Commissioners Shea and Travillion want to build a jail because the Sheriff wants it, not because the county needs one. But there's a reason the Texas constitution separates jail management functions from budget writing: It's the commissioners' job to vet such proposals, and any rational analysis of county needs argues against jail building right now.

We live in such an odd political moment. Jails are so expensive and cumbersome for counties, usually commissioners only want to build them as a last resort. To have self-avowed liberals wanting to build one when they don't need the space feels like a bit of a through-the-looking-glass moment. But for long-time observers, perhaps it isn't as surprising as it seems.

Liberals pushing to build a jail we don't need feels to me like a throwback to the Ann Richards era. Then, liberals championed prison building as a last ditch effort to stop the state from flipping to Republican control. Trying to "out incarcerate" Republicans didn't work then and it won't help today. Instead, it will dissuade voters Democrats need from coming to the polls at all. 

Jail opponents have presented the County with a robust set of alternatives that address Travis County's real needs -- build mental health crisis centers and intermediate treatment options, housing, substance abuse services and more. People like those ideas. They poll well. They actually work. Why not stop trying to out-Republican the Republicans and stand for something different?

UPDATE: After a fairly dramatic hearing in which three commissioners for a time appeared to lean toward moving forward, more than 100 speakers against from all walks of community life convinced them to delay the jail project for a year in a unanimous vote. This got uglier and weirder than it needed to be. Unless it was contractor-driven, I still don't understand the urgency behind jail proponents' push while the jail is half full. Glad they delayed it.

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