The Jeffersonian: Politicks, Sports, and Culture

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Ask An Expert

Contrary to popular belief I don't have all the answers, so whenever I run across an article that I don't fully understand I like to go out and grab as much information as possible about it. The girlfriend says it's what makes me a nerd. But when it comes to criminal justice issues in Texas, all I ever have to do is turn to resident expert and fellow Texan Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast. A few days ago I e-mailed Scott Henson about this Express-News article on Bexar County's overcrowded jail asking Scott what he makes of it. Here's his full response.

Now I haven't fully gotten through every one of his links but one thing stands out to me in his post:

Bexar's failure to release more offenders on personal bond awaiting trial stands out as a big subject to address. Offhand, looking at the most recent report (pdf, Dec. 1, 2005) on Bexar County's jail population, 2,326 out of 3,930 inmates, or more than 59%, were incarcerated awaiting trial -- 641 of them misdemeanants and many more non-violent, low-level felons. By contrast, in much-larger Harris County, the number of misdemeanants in the jail is just over half that figure. So Bexar's incarcerating a much larger proportion of low-level offenders before trial than its larger cousin.

That's partially because in Bexar County, unlike Harris, the pretrial services division doesn't interview defendants unless they request an appointed lawyer (see the Bexar court rules, pdf), meaning that they don't screen many people who could be eligible for pre-trial release. Personal bonds should be offered based on defendants' relative dangerousness and likelihood to abscond, not the ability to pay a bail bondsman -- only screening formally indigent defendants excludes many from possibly receiving such bonds. Granting them more broadly could significantly reduce the jail population without harming public safety.

Bexar commissioners should also consider creating a public defenders office, which would streamline everything considerably for indigent defendants and help process cases faster and more cheaply. That's something the commissioners court could do on its own with help from state grants. In Hidalgo County the new public defenders office already has lessened jail overcrowding woes.

Just to point something out to everyone, the 2000 census showed Bexar County with nearly 1.4 million people. The 2000 census showed Harris County with 3 million citizens. And they have a little over half the number of misdemeanants in jail that we do. Think about that for a second. And why don't we have a public defenders office here in Bexar County?

Just a great post overall and especially helpful to people like me who read that article, were astounded by it, but knew absolutely nothing about what it would take to reduce the jail overcrowding... outside of building a second jail. Thanks alot Scott!