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East Texas counties find methods to cut jail populations

East Texas counties find methods to cut jail populations

POSTED: Sunday, June 17, 2012 - 6:57pm

UPDATED: Sunday, June 17, 2012 - 6:58pm

Steps to ease crowding at the Gregg County Jail have resulted in the smallest jail population in years — largely the result of a pragmatic plan to shift punishment from incarceration to rehabilitation or treatment.

With a capacity to hold 916 inmates, there were 638 prisoners locked up Friday, down from an average daily population of 800 inmates in 2010, said Capt. Mike Claxton of the Gregg County Sheriff’s Office.

It’s a trend seen statewide.

“Fewer inmates is better for everyone,” said Adan Munoz, Jr. executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. “It’s a benefit for the jails, the community and the individuals if they can find alternatives to incarceration.”

Munoz said the commission encourages counties to find alternatives to incarceration as a means of managing inmate population.

“It’s extremely expensive to build a jail,” he said.

You don’t have to look far to see that: Harrison and Rusk counties opened new jails in 2011.

The Rusk County facility, designed to hold 187 inmates, cost $15 million. Harrison County’s jail annex came in at about $7 million.

“You don’t want to spend money on bricks and mortar,” Munoz said. “We work a lot with counties right in the margin who might have to build to alleviate overcrowding and show them how they can be better served with alternatives to incarceration rather than building.”

In Gregg County, one of the first jail diversion efforts was identification of inmates with mental health issues.

“We have professionals come to the jail, look at people we might identify as having mental health issues,” said county Judge Bill Stoudt. “We work to get them on a different diversion for recovery rather than sitting in jail. We get them screened and on medication and work with the judicial system to get them to a mental health facility versus the jail.”

Stoudt said members of the judicial community — from the sheriff to the district attorney and judges — have worked to identify alternatives to incarceration.

Sentencing non-violent offenders to community service was another method utilized. “When it makes sense,” the judge added. “Community service isn’t for everybody; just non-violent, non-felony offenders.”

Rather than sitting in jail, Stoudt said, those offenders can work out their jail sentences doing community service — efforts such as picking up trash from the road, cleaning the rodeo arena and moving equipment for non-profit organizations.

People sentenced to community service report to a probation officer and log in their hours when they work.

Munoz said other commonly used methods include ankle monitoring; three-to-one or two-to-one sentences that credit inmates with double or triple time for good behavior; drug treatment, anger management and other forms of counseling.

“All those programs alleviate overcrowding,” he said.

Speedy trials are one of the most effective ways to reduce inmate population, Munoz said, because the majority of inmates in any county jail are there awaiting trial.

In May, 58 percent of the Gregg County Jail inmate population was awaiting trial, including pre-trial felons, pre-trial misdemeanor and pre-trial state jail felons. At the same time, 76 percent of Harrison County Jail inmates were there awaiting trial; in Upshur County, the total was 64 percent and in Rusk County it was 56 percent, according to jail commission data.

Overall, according to an analysis of data from the jail commission, inmate populations in Gregg, Rusk and Upshur county jails declined in the past year, while Harrison County’s jail population increased.

Even with the new jail annex, Harrison County is operating almost at capacity, said jail administrator Capt. John Hain.

He blamed illegal drugs for his county’s burgeoning inmate population.

“It’s how it’s always been,” said Hain, now in his 23rd year working in the jail. “Where you have drugs you have burglaries and thieving. Economics plays a part in it, too. We’re not in the best of shape economy-wise. Most of what we have are assaults or are drug related in some shape or form.”

Before opening the jail annex, Harrison County housed about 100 inmates a month in the Gregg County Jail, which has one of the largest capacities in East Texas.

Opening of the facility in Marshall contributed to the decline in Gregg County inmate population, but Gregg County still contracts to hold inmates for the U.S. Marshals Service, as well as those from Smith and Cass counties.

“Jails, for every county, are very expensive to operate,” Stoudt said. “They cost a lot of money. The sheriff does a wonderful job of generating revenue from other counties and in managing costs. We’re in an outstanding position moving forward not to have to build a jail.”

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