When I was appointed six years ago by Gov. Greg Abbott to be the chairman of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (the Commission), I had no idea of the complexities of what this position involved. I knew as a County Judge that you did not want your county jail to be out of compliance with the Commission. I did not realize the challenges Texas counties faced to stay in compliance; today, I do. Ongoing issues for counties include inmate population, jail staffing, and overall increased cost to counties. The Commission also faces the challenge of revamping the jail inspection process.
Several factors continue to drive the increase in the inmate population in county jails. Most counties report that the local court systems are still not operating at pre-COVID levels.
When it takes longer for criminal cases to be disposed of, the delay trickles down to all levels, including the rise in inmate population. It is important that counties monitor the pace at which their local courts are operating and identify the component(s) causing delays. Providing additional resources, whether it be visiting judges, additional prosecutors, court staff, or a combination of all three should be considered. Open communication with all parties involved is critical, especially communication with the sheriff, who can provide valuable resources to identify backlogs.
Another unwelcome setback counties face involves criminal cases disposed with a sentence to the State prison system. It is important that counties expedite the preparation of pen packets and ensure they are correct to prevent additional postponements in transferring inmates. The longer the inmate sits in the county jail, the more it costs the county.
While there continue to be questions about reimbursement for paper-ready inmates held over 45 days, this activity has not been funded by the Legislature in 25 years and will require an appropriation in order to become effective again. Admission to State hospitals for inmates deemed incompetent is also impacting county jail populations. There are now more inmates on the wait list for a forensic bed than there are beds. Wait times are approaching a year, on average, and jails are not equipped to provide the therapeutic care needed. This issue continues to be reviewed and different solutions offered, but the truth is the need continues to surpass the supply, and the cost to the counties continues to rise.
The newest factor impacting jails is the Public Safety Report (PSR) required as a result of Senate Bill 6 from the 87th 2nd Session. The PSR expects information to be entered into a database at the time of magistration and ensures that Personal Recognizance (PR) Bonds are not offered to individuals who have committed or are charged with assaultive crimes. There is not enough data at this time to determine just how much of an effect this is having on jail populations, but compared to the influence of the executive order put into place during the early part of COVID-19, only time will tell.
Recruiting and retaining jail staff was difficult even before the pandemic, and any conversation you have with a county sheriff will undoubtedly include this topic. Without a doubt, working in a jail is a thankless and sometimes dangerous profession, and the men and women who take this on daily are rarely recognized. Without them, the county jail could not operate, and our entire criminal justice system would grind to a halt. Sadly, this is not just a Texas problem, but one that is being reported and discussed nationwide when it comes to jails/corrections/law enforcement. The first hurdle is also the least popular – pay. This cost continues to be a big factor impacting counties, along with cost in mental health, indigent defense, and inflation.
REVAMPED INSPECTION PROCESS
The Commission recognizes the unprecedented challenges county jails are facing. In an effort to address the needs in a respectful and expeditious manner, a variance subcommittee has been created. This subcommittee can meet in between regular Commission meetings and shows how committed the Texas Commission on Jail Standards is to working WITH, not AGAINST counties in the operation of safe and secure jails. Naturally, every request cannot be approved, but all will be reviewed. If a county jail is nearing capacity, the sheriff is encouraged to reach out to the Commission BEFORE overcrowding occurs.
The Commission has been mandated by Sunset to move toward a risk-based inspection model and no longer conduct annual inspections. Future inspections will be based on a more objective approach that incorporates Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards. The Commission is working diligently with Sam Houston State University to validate a risk-assessment tool that will help guide this program. Applying these new tools and accounting methods will not be an easy task, but the end result will be promising. The Commission will ensure that information will be shared as it is developed, stakeholder input will be reviewed, and the final procedures will be introduced methodically, rather than by ambush.
As stated earlier, the Commission is committed to working with counties, not against. As a sitting County Judge, I am well aware of the hardships counties across this State are dealing with in increased costs and constraints on county revenues. As we all continue to deal with these challenges, communication is the most important tool to deal with the future, be it with the sheriff, Commissioners Court, or other elected officials. By working together, both the counties and the State will achieve the respective objectives.
By Gregg County Judge Bill Stoudt