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Stories Added - January 2009
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Commissioners ponder number of jail beds
Tyler County Booster - January 2009
By Ed Sterling
Commissioners heard last week from MGT of America, the consultants they hired to look at how many beds a new jail in Tyler County would need to stay in compliance with the Texas Jail Commission as the county moves into the future. While MGT made a recommendation, the only certain thing that came out of the meeting was what was already known, that Tyler County must build a jail, and that it is going to be expensive. MGT concluded from the data it acquired that Tyler County would increase the size of its jail from the 43 beds to a minimum of 80 beds by 2018. The Jail Commission told the commissioners a maximum of 96. Commissioners were thinking at least 144, and were clearly disappointed the MGT study didn’t support their conclusions, citing anecdotal information explaining the need for those 144 beds. One thing is for certain, somewhere in that gulf between 80 beds and 144 is a lot of money county taxpayers are going to have to approve, and commissioners realize it will be a complicated sell.
MGT’s report was pretty straightforward and confirmed much of what the court already knew, that space in the current jail is inadequate and that the need for additional space would become more pronounced as the jail population continues to grow. MGT also had some recommendations for dealing with the current situation, which includes continuing to use alternatives to incarceration, including pre-trial supervision programs, developing a program alternative specifically targeted at those accused of check writing offenses, and developing detailed policy and procedures for the issuance of citations for Class B misdemeanors. Another recommendation is to upgrade computer and software systems to capture data that is currently being missed. Tyler County Sheriff David Hennigan summed it up when he told the court that the current data systems in the county were mired in the 20th century and needed major upgrades. While, according to MGT, Tyler County’s population has decreased slightly since 2000, crime has steadily increased. Until 2007, Tyler County had one of the lowest rates of index crimes (serious offenses) in it’s peer group. However, Tyler County had one of the highest violent crime rates of its peers from 2004-2007.” The overall index crime rate experienced only minor changes until 2006 when it increased 44 percent, mostly from property crime. Violent crime also increased. The report noted that jail time for bad check writing decreased dramatically over this period, likely because of the lack of jail space to place them in. Analyzing the data they were able to acquire, MGT’s Jail Population Projection was that the county would need to house an average daily population of 73 inmates by 2018, peaking at 80 inmates in that same year. Numbers of beds, though, is only part of the problem in the current jail. MGT noted that was only one room within the jail for programs and cannot hold 43 inmates, the current jail capacity. The current kitchen and laundry are also too small for the jail population. Simply stated, MGT agreed that the county is doing everything in its power to manage the limited jail space and facilities, action which now requires the county to house a varying number of prisoners in out-of-county facilities, at considerable expense to taxpayers.
But there is, according to commissioners and others involved in the Tyler County justice system, a lot more to the issue than the report suggests, and that is to some degree a result of how well the county has been able to manage the jail population. In short, according to Tyler County District Attorney Joe Smith, the county has managed to keep the jail population down by simply not putting hundreds of folks in jail that should have been put in jail. It is that careful management, commissioners insist, that has skewed the data MGT had to use in it’s future jail population projections. Why does any of this matter? The basic answer is that the Texas Jail Commission must sign off to the Attorney General on any plan for jail expansion that the commissioners approve. Without that signature, the county can’t get the funding to build the facility. Commissioners, though, do not believe even 96 beds are adequate for the county’s needs, and want to build a jail that serves the county far into the future, rather than incurring even more expense by have to expand again in 10 years. It all comes back to how much data you have and how that data is interpreted. For example, MGT noted in it’s detailed report that in 2007, the jail was under capacity almost 2/3’s of the time, which seems inconsistent with the facts, which are that the county is currently housing inmates in another county to prevent being over capacity and in violation of the Jail Commissions requirements that a jail remain under capacity 100 percent of the time.