Crowded Jails Becoming Health Hazards

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Mentally ill offenders and nonviolent criminals are crowding local jails to the point that the facilities could become health hazards and counties are struggling with the cost of housing and caring for the burgeoning population.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, or TCJC, spent eight months reviewing all 245 county jails for a report that details why local lockups are overflowing with inmates and what policymakers can do to stem the tide. “Being smart on crime and passing policies that really focus on people who are a true danger to society is going to save everyone financially,” says Ana Yañez-Correa, the TCJC's executive director. While lawmakers like state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, the vice chairman of the House Corrections Committee, agree that Texas must be “smart on crime,” they also are expecting a budget shortfall of up to $21 billion in the next biennium. “There will be little or no new money for little or nothing” in the coming legislative session, Madden says. “The state just doesn’t have it.”

More than 72,000 people were housed in county jails in September 2010 — nearly 75 percent of the total capacity available statewide. Six of those jails, including the facilities in Dallas, Harris, Bexar and Tarrant counties, are among 50 of the largest lockups in the nation, according to the 116-page TCJC report, which was set for release today. “Texas cannot afford to continue its historic dependence on costly jails to regulate criminal behavior: it simply consumes critical taxpayer dollars while failing to decrease crime,” the report says. With that many inmates and an average price tag of about $45 per inmate per day, the county jail system costs local taxpayers nearly $23 million a week. In fiscal year 2008, according to the report, the 10 largest county jails on average accounted for nearly 14 percent of their county's budget. In Harris County, the bill came to nearly $168 million.

Without strategies to keep people out of jail, counties will be forced to build expensive new facilities, Yañez-Correa says — or conditions will worsen to the point that, as in the 1970s, they will be inundated with civil rights lawsuits from inmates. “It’s about asking, ‘What are taxpayers getting for … their investment?’” she says.

Texas jails have become warehouses for the mentally ill, the report contends. Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia says that on any given day, about 25 percent of the more than 10,000 inmates in his facilities are on psychotropic drugs, making the Harris County Jail the largest single provider of mental health care in the state. Without more state resources directed to such care, Garcia says, Harris County will continue to spend millions to house prisoners in Louisiana and other Texas counties because its own facilities are too packed. Right now, Harris County sends hundreds of offenders to other jails because it does not have capacity to house them all.

 

Instead of cycling offenders with mental disorders and drug addiction problems in and out of local jails, the TCJC recommends a screening process that will direct them to appropriate treatment programs. “Specialized supervision strategies will increase the likelihood of positive changed behavior and reduce the threat of escalating offenses by a mentally ill person,” the report says. In Williamson County, a crisis intervention team that works with local mental health providers helped save the county $2.3 million from 2006 to 2008, according to the report, diverting some 1,088 people from the county jail. The report also recommends specialized courts and dockets to deal with the mentally ill and make certain that they get treatment.

Texas ranks 50th nationally in spending on mental health care, which means community-based mental health care services are scarce. Madden says he doesn't expect that situation to improve during the austere 2011 session, though he promises legislators will consider the recommendations. “It’s far less expensive for us to intervene and interdict early in the process,” he says.

The most critical recommendation from the report, Yañez-Correa says, is one that could be the most difficult to convince lawmakers to adopt. The TCJC wants to see jail time eliminated for more nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, including the possession of small amounts of marijuana. More than 15 percent of inmates in county jails in April were charged with misdemeanors, according to the report. “That’s going to save the counties millions and millions of dollars,” Yañez-Correa says.

In addition to cutting the number of inmates, such a change in policy would also reduce the amount of money that counties have to spend providing lawyers for jailed inmates who can’t afford their own defense. And, Yañez-Correa says, it would allow offenders to keep their jobs, making them more likely to pay their fines and less likely to commit future offenses. “It’s not such a harsh disruption in their life,” she says. The TCJC also suggests that lawmakers allow counties to adopt so-called cite-and-summons policies for more low-level offenses, which give police the latitude to issue offenders a ticket and order them to show up in court later rather than hauling them to jail immediately.  

Madden says lawmakers would likely be hesitant to reduce penalties or expand cite-and-summons policies. “The major stress and major emphasis we’ve got to have is first of all on public safety,” he says. “We don’t want to lose that emphasis.”

Adan Muñoz, a former sheriff who is the executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, says expanding cite-and-summons policies has some potential to reduce jail population, but that it should be approached with caution. It could be a challenge, he says, to ensure that those who are issued a summons return for their day in court.

Another big help lawmakers could provide for counties, Yañez-Correa says, would be allowing judges to set bail for parolees with technical violations. Currently, those who violate their parole terms by not showing up to parole visits, failing a drug test or committing other minor offenses must stay in jail until the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles decides whether the mistake is serious enough to warrant re-incarceration. Last week, more than 350 inmates in Harris County were locked up for so-called “blue warrants.” A bill that would have allowed those inmates to make bail passed the Legislature in 2007 but was vetoed by Gov. Rick Perry. A similar bill died in the logjam of legislation at the end of the 2009 session.

Muñoz says it used to be that local lockups got crowded because state officials took months to get felons transferred from county facilities to prisons. Those transfers are now happening quicker, leaving sheriffs around the state to complain about a different problem: the increasing number of mentally ill, low-level, repeat criminals in their jails. “They’re all being overwhelmed by a growing criminal justice system,” he says.

Without improved mental health care, policy changes and cooperation from state lawmakers and local officials, Muñoz says, the crowding will continue — increasing costs for counties, which will have to decide whether to build more facilities or risk lawsuits over deteriorating conditions. “Either pay now or pay later,” he says.

 

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