I Get The Feeling That Something Ain't Right..
Dallas has 3 months to fix jail
Understaffing may force county to pay millions to send inmates elsewhere
11:39 PM CST on Tuesday, February 6, 2007
By KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News
Dallas County officials soon may have to shut the doors to their crowded and understaffed jail and pay millions of dollars to send inmates to other counties if they can't get the inmate population under control.
The county has three months to meet the state's minimum staffing requirement of one guard per 48 inmates – something it has consistently been unable to do – or the state probably will order the crowded jail not to admit any more prisoners.
If that happens, the county would have to pay to transport and house its prisoners in other jails across the state, at an annual cost of up to $18 million.
Such a scenario would result in "mayhem," Chief Public Defender Brad Lollar said. Defense attorneys may not have time to visit clients in distant jails, and inmates would have to be bused back and forth to court hearings.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards summoned county and sheriff's officials to its meeting last Friday for a status update on the troubled jail. The commission staff had been prepared to recommend the remedial order that day to close the jail but reconsidered after hearing about improvements in the works, said Allen Clemson, the Commissioners Court administrator.
County officials are now in emergency mode, having given themselves a 30-day deadline to reduce the jail's population of more than 7,000 by 1,000 inmates, which they said will bring them in compliance.
The state jail commission "told us we were subject to an inspection at any time and that midnight unannounced visits are not out of the question," said Commissioner John Wiley Price, who attended the jail commission meeting. "We take them very seriously."
The Dallas County Jail system – the seventh largest in the nation – has failed state inspections three years in a row, primarily because of inadequate staffing. Dallas has the highest incarceration rate among Texas' five largest counties.
The Sheriff's Department spent more than $9 million in overtime in the jails last fiscal year. But a surprise state inspection in October revealed the jail still wasn't meeting the minimum staffing requirement.
"We are both in agreement that you cannot go on like this forever," said Adan Munoz, executive director of the Commission on Jail Standards. "Remedial orders have to be put in place."
Mr. Munoz said a U.S. Justice Department report on the jail was the main reason he asked Dallas County officials to appear last week before the commission in Austin. The federal investigation concluded in December that the county is violating inmates' civil rights with dangerous and unsanitary jail conditions.
The district attorney's office, defense attorneys and criminal court judges have agreed to work together to dispose of cases quicker.
Judges will release nonviolent low-level offenders with lower bonds, personal recognizance bonds or a notice to appear in court at a later date. A similar move was taken to free up space in the Decker jail for Katrina evacuees in 2005.
For example, 125 people are in jail charged with prostitution who could be released, Mr. Clemson said.
County criminal courts manager Mikah Mitchell said that in the misdemeanor courts, inmates will be released if they meet certain conditions such as no immigration holds and no history of bond forfeitures.
Judge John Creuzot, who presides over the county's felony courts, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Lena Levario, one of the new Democratic judges who was elected in November, said she will begin calling defense attorneys to ask them to show up in court and dispose of their clients' cases.
"I will ask them to come in and take care of it," said Judge Levario, of the 204th Criminal District Court. "We will not be releasing anyone who we think will be a threat to the community."
District Attorney Craig Watkins said his office began pulling the oldest state jail felony cases this week and will make more reasonable plea bargain offers so the defendants can be moved out of the county jail to begin serving their sentences in state jails.
Mr. Lollar, the public defender chief, said his office is already seeing better plea bargain offers.
Mr. Price, who heads the county's jail population committee, said some inmates can be given community service while others can wear electronic monitors while awaiting trial.
If such measures to reduce the jail population fail, Sheriff Lupe Valdez will move some of her deputies from patrol, warrants and other divisions into the jail as a last resort, Mr. Price said.
The jail-crowding problem is a result not only of the county's crime rate but also of its own policies.
The Dallas County Jail has the highest percentage of inmates awaiting trial on low-level, nonviolent charges in Texas – almost double that of Harris County, according to recent numbers sent to the state.
Most inmates are there because they cannot afford bail. Others, arrested on drug charges, are in jail awaiting drug test results before their cases can even go before a grand jury. That was a policy former District Attorney Bill Hill enacted in 2002 to prevent a repeat of the fake-drug scandal in which dozens of innocent people were arrested.
Under the policy, drugs must be sent to a lab for analysis before drug offenders' cases can move. The turnaround time was lengthy at first because of staff shortages at the county's crime lab, but it has since improved to about 20 days.
In Tarrant County, defendants are not admitted to the county jail until the drugs are tested.
Mr. Watkins said during a recent jail population committee meeting that he plans to re-evaluate that policy and possibly ask arresting agencies to hold offenders until drug testing is complete.
A decision several years ago to dismantle the pretrial release program has come back to haunt Dallas County. The program identifies low-risk inmates charged with minor crimes who are allowed to pay reduced bail to get out of jail.
The county is working to reinstate the program, which is expected to be up and running by next month.
In Dallas County, it takes longer to see a judge after an arrest. Police have up to 72 hours to file a case with the district attorney, not including weekends, Mr. Lollar said. As a result, inmates can sit in jail from five to 12 days before going before a judge, he said.
"We can't do anything with those cases," he said.
In Harris County, prosecutors work shifts around the clock and can immediately accept or reject a case from an arresting officer, Mr. Lollar said.
As Dallas County's inmate population swells, the jail staff is being stretched thin.
More guards are leaving the jail to transport inmates to Parkland Memorial Hospital because of the increased trips ordered by the hospital, which is now in charge of jail health. Guards also are needed to watch the inmates at the hospital.
County commissioners recently approved 100 more jail guard positions to help transport inmates to the hospital, as well as 85 new positions for the Decker jail, but it could take months to fill them.
Mr. Price said the Sheriff's Department is having difficulty finding enough recruits who can pass the physical and psychological tests, as well as the background checks.
Mattye Mauldin-Taylor, the county's human resources director, said she needs 1,500 applications to fill 200 guard positions. Recruiting is not easy because of the nature of the job, she said.
The starting salary for a jail guard is $31,158, with a guaranteed 5 percent raise after one year, she said.
Mr. Clemson said that reducing the jail population by 1,000 inmates will not be easy but that he doesn't think it will strain the system.
State officials "expect us to take immediate action to get into compliance," he said.
Me Thinks Me Smells a Settlement............
Judge David Finn