Plan Would Make Texas Jails Pay for Inspections

Inspectors testing the emergency ventilation of the unit for fire code compliance tests at Dallas County Jail.
Inspectors testing the emergency ventilation of the unit for fire code compliance tests at Dallas County Jail.

Texas counties could soon have to pay for state inspectors to assess their jails. The proposal is getting mixed reviews from local officials already struggling with budget problems, but it may be the only way to maintain the small agency responsible for overseeing the state’s 245 county jails.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards, with its 19 employees and an annual budget of about $1 million, inspects every county lockup in the state each year, determining whether staff members and officials are complying with rules meant to keep the facilities safe and to keep counties out of court for violating inmates’ rights. Despite its relatively miniscule portion of the state’s $182 billion budget, the commission is not exempt from the cutting bonanza lawmakers are undertaking as they seek ways to trim $15 billion to $27 billion from the state’s two-year budget.

Proposals now under consideration would slice about 30 percent from the commission’s budget. Adan Muñoz, the commission’s executive director, said that with that kind of cut, the agency would not be able to accomplish its core function of inspecting jails. “I can tell you I’m optimistic they’ll find some money somewhere,” he said.

That “somewhere” lawmakers are looking to is the counties that operate the jails. Legislative budget writers have proposed creating a fee schedule that would charge counties for inspections and recoup about $280,000 of the money lawmakers are proposing to cut from the commission’s budget. Although sheriffs and other county officials contend that the jail commission and its inspections are vital to keeping their facilities operating safely, they do not all agree that collecting fees based on inspections is a good plan.

Donald Lee, executive director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, said the proposal to charge for inspections was not well thought-out. “It creates a perception that inspections are not being done for the right reasons but are being done for revenue reasons,” he said. Jail inspections and re-inspections, Lee said, should be performed based on regulatory needs, not on the agency’s budgetary needs.

Lawmakers established the commission in 1975 to oversee and set standards for county jails. Since then, federal intervention and lawsuits  — many of which were a result of poor inmate conditions — have declined significantly. “We want active enforcement, and we want good enforcement of good regulation,” Lee said. “There’s got to be a better way than fees for inspections.”

But Sheriff Gary Painter of Midland County, who serves as president of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas and as a member of the jail standards commission, said collecting fees for inspections is a reasonable idea. The challenge, Painter said, will be ensuring that the fees are fair to the counties because their jail operations vary so vastly. Some, like the Harris County Jail in Houston, are the size of small towns and house thousands of inmates. Other lockups take in only a handful of scofflaws.

Painter said charging counties for inspections would be an incentive for officials to keep their jails in “tip-top shape” at all times.

Commission inspections are conducted without warning, and if jails do not meet the standards, they are often required to have a re-inspection. If each inspection costs the county more money, Painter said, officials will work hard to make sure they do not rack up additional fees.

“I would rather pay the fee than lose” the commission, Painter said. “We’ll find the money one way or another.”

At a House budget hearing last week, state Rep. John Otto, R-Dayton, said legislators were still studying ways to find money to keep the jail commission operating. He said he was worried counties would be hesitant to pay the fee, which would leave the commission in a serious budgetary jam. “We’re still working our way through this to see if this is the best alternative,” he said.

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