Exploring Ways to Reduce Jail Overpopulation in Texas and Tom Green County

 

Many people incarcerated in Texas have not received convictions for the crimes in which they are accused. In fact, San Angelo LIVE! wrote previously that more than half are in pre-trial detention, or awaiting trial because they cannot afford the bond. In Tom Green County, about 70 percent of the people in the Tom Green County Jail belong to the pre-trial population. As a result, the average cost to Tom Green taxpayers to incarcerate the entire TGCJ pretrial population is about $15,694 per day on average. For more information on this breakdown, click here.

According to the 2012-2013 Policy Paper Evidence-Based Pretrial Release by the Conference of State Court Administrators, “Pretrial judicial decisions about release or detention of defendants before disposition of criminal charges have a significant and, sometimes, determinative impact on thousands of defendants every day while adding great financial stress to publicly funded jails holding defendants who are unable to meet financial conditions of release.”

Because of this cost to taxpayers, and the negative effects sitting in jail day after day has on low-risk offenders, members of the Texas Judicial Council formed a Criminal Justice Committee last summer to look into pre-trial practices in the state and determine much-needed changes.

Two members of that committee and the Judicial Council, David Slayton, Executive Director of the Office of Court Administration, and Judge Kelly Moore, presiding Judge in the Ninth Administrative Judicial Region and the 121st District Court in Terry and Yoakum Counties, and Region Chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, said they hope change will come soon in Texas after the Committee presents Best Practices ideas to the State Legislature.

“The Texas Judicial Council is a statuary body that’s been around since 1929, and it’s the policy-making body of the Judicial Branch,” Slayton said. “We are always looking at issues, studying them, and making recommendations for improvement that require internal changes in the Judiciary, or maybe require legislative changes to fix issues."

What the Committee Found

Slayton said the Committee found that, according to statistics from the Texas Commission of Jail Standards, the number of individuals being held in Texas jails prior to pre-trial, or prior to trial, is at 61 percent.

“Where many people may think the people who are in jail have been convicted, that’s really a very small minority of individuals being held in Texas jails," Slayton noted.

These people being held are also low-risk offenders, meaning they aren’t a flight risk, a no-show risk, nor do they have a high risk in their potential to re-offend.

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Slayton stated. “What we’re hearing is many of them may be individuals who are too poor to make their bond, so they stay in jail until their trial."

Slayton added that 61 percent of the state jail population is up 39 percent from 2003, so they’ve seen this rapid rise of this issue over the years. He said he feels it’s because of judges wanting to protect the public, and without information, they may err on the side of caution by setting higher bonds, or setting things that will keep people in jail versus being a little more relaxed if they had more information on the risk factor of an individual.

The Risk Factor Issue

Slayton said in most Texas counties, including Tom Green County, judges don't have good information on the risk of a defendant.

He said, “Many times, what we’re hearing from judges across the state is the only information the judge has at that time on the defendant standing before him or her is the charge that person’s charged with." There’s no information on risk, criminal history and other factors. Judges, many times, default to a certain bond amount, which defendants may or may not be able to make, Slayton added. This means low-risk defendants remain in jail longer than they should while many high-risk individuals make the bond and get out.

“It’s counter productive to what the Judiciary is trying to do with individuals to protect the public’s safety, and to ensure the defendant will show back up,” said Slayton. “We’re looking primarily to ensure judges have that information when making the original decisions that can guide their decisions."

The Effects on Low-Risk Offenders

Slayton said the Committee reviewed national research last fall on this issue that shows when defendants are low risk their chances of reoffending later increases every day they remain in jail.

“In other words, it makes them worse,” he said. “That’s obviously counter to what the judges want happening. That’s counter to what society at large wants."

Slayton said there’s also all the side issues that come with an individual who is too poor to make bond.

“They’re probably just making it, so they’re losing their job, their house, their car, maybe losing family, and it creates issues with child support and divorces,” he stated. "The societal problems just compound.”

Fixing the Problem

Slayton said the Committee’s trying to provide risk-assessment information to judges so they can make better decisions on an ongoing basis.

“With that respect, if judges have that information, they might release people on pre-trial personal bonds,” Slayton said. “Basically, without requiring them to put up cash of some sort, or it would be a low enough bond that the defendant could make. Therefore, we would expect the population of jail to decrease significantly."

Judge Moore said, to accomplish this, the Committee is focusing on the “front end” of the system.

“We're feeling like we can get the most bank for our buck on our Committee by looking at the very front end and trying to make sure that those people who are now languishing in the jails aren’t there more than a day or two. They don’t need to be there,” Moore said. “Now, as far as a timeframe, our goal with the Texas Judicial Council, of course, is to make recommendations to the coming Legislature, before the session starts, probably in August."

He added that the Committee will recommend legislation and Best Practices.

“We hope we can recommend some specific risk assessment tools to judges,” Moore added. “I’ll tell you this; the lack of information that judges setting bonds have will really astound you, and it’s just an issue that sometimes judges are required to run blind when they’re setting bonds. If we could do nothing more than accomplish getting that information to the judges, we’ll see an impact in the jail population."

A Local Judge’s Perspective

Judge Ben Woodward, with the 119th Judicial District Court in Tom Green County, reiterated the concern that the longer a defendant sits in jail, he or she loses a job, family and support.

Woodward said Tom Green County judges looked into a process where someone would interview people when they came to jail and make a determination if they had a drug addiction, to perhaps expedite that case because that person needed to be in treatment, as opposed to sitting in jail.

"So those need to be expedited," he said. "That requires manpower that we don’t have, and requires some cooperation among a lot of people involved: the jail, all the attorneys, district attorneys, defense attorneys, and we don’t have that system set up right now. I’d like to see something like that."

Woodward added that the judges made an attempt at this several years ago, but they tried to implement it before they got all the attorneys and district attorneys on board.

“They weren’t familiar with what we were trying to accomplish, and without everybody being comfortable with what we’re trying to do, it just didn’t go anywhere. Maybe, one day, we could try it again," Woodward said.

One thing implemented statewide is the Texas Risk Assessment Survey, or TRAS. However, Judge Woodward said, “That is post judgment generally. We may use before pre-judgment, but, for the most part, that’s going to tell us what programs someone on probation should attend. If the offender is at a low risk of reoffending, and the survey can help us determine that, we don’t want to put too many programs or too many conditions on that person. Studies have shown that if you put more programs on a low-risk offender, you increase his [or her] chances of reoffending. On the other hand, someone with a high risk of reoffending, we need to know that so we can pinpoint programs that rehabilitate and supervise. So the objective of this TRAS is to let us know where our resources should be applied most effectively."

Woodward said this program was recently implemented, and he’s expecting it to help identify low-risk offenders so they may report less frequently. They also won’t participate in classes that don’t pertain to their offense. Therefore, with that additional time, the judges will have more resources to focus on high-risk offenders.

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