By Donna Klaeger, Burnet County Judge and TCJS Chairman
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (Commission or TCJS) met in a workshop on Dec. 2, 2010, in Austin to review processes and procedures as the Commission embarks on a review of jail statutes and standards. Many sheriffs and jail personnel were in attendance, as well as county judges, commissioners, and representatives from special interest groups such as the ACLU and the Texas Jail Project.
Burnet County Judge Donna Klaeger, chairman of the Commission, opened the meeting with a review of the State of Texas and TCJS mission statements, both which emphasize efficiency, fiscal responsibility, reducing regulatory burdens, promoting innovative programs and ideas, and empowering local governments to provide safe, secure, and suitable local jail facilities.
TCJS commissioners acknowledged that local governments are charged with the safety and security of their jail facilities, inmates, employees and citizens, and that the sheriff is in charge of the jail. History of the creation of TCJS, which was spurred by the possibility of federal government takeover of Texas' prisons and jails back in the 1970s, was also discussed. Although statutes regarding county jail requirements were first introduced as far back as 1925 and expanded in the decades that followed, it was not until 1975 that the Commission and its administrative rules were created to provide guidance on how to achieve compliance in an effort to alleviate federal litigation. In 1979 the federal courts accepted the standards and administrative rules.
Over the last 30-plus years, there have been many revisions to the standards; however, major portions of the standards have not been revised since 1997. TCJS, by statute, is required to review and re-adopt the standards every four years. Commissioners discussed reviewing the standards by section to give staff, Commission members, county commissioners courts, sheriffs, and special interest groups the ability to focus on the subject matter. Standard reviews and discussions will be held at the beginning of each quarterly Commission meeting so that everyone will have an opportunity to participate. TCJS will set up a review schedule, to be published on the Commission website and distributed through the Texas Association of Counties (TAC) listservs to county judges, commissioners and sheriffs. This will not be a rushed process; the goal is to thoroughly review jail standards and to make sure that ample time is allowed for input. There will be no deadlines until the official update process begins. It was also acknowledged in the meeting that it can be very difficult and confusing to find details on the standards; this issue will be reviewed for possible updating and easier access.
The Commission also wants to hear about best practices. In 2009 the Sunset Advisory Commission charged TCJS with collecting best practices from counties to offer assistance to others. While the Commission cannot endorse best practices, we will be able to share yours for the benefit of other counties.
There was much discussion regarding sanctions issued by TCJS and the need for an intermediary ruling, noting deficiencies with a corrective action plan. Undoubtedly this topic will receive much attention, input and review. The Commission staff will review nationwide staffing levels and report their findings for further discussion.
As a reminder to all, the TCJS has the responsibility to follow the statutes and has no input into their creation, other than providing facts as requested. Texas Commission on Jail Standards is charged with creating minimum standards and regulating those standards as directed by the legislative statutes. County officials, however, have the ability to communicate with policymakers and influence statutory and administrative changes which can have significant impact on local authority and budgets.
The bottom line to make this project successful is communication. It is important that we at the TCJS hear from you. What is working? What is NOT? WHY does it have to be done this way? There may be standards that are obsolete, and the Commission will investigate accordingly.
TCJS will make every effort to set up and attend workshops at TAC conferences over the next year to give county officials the opportunity to discuss issues. Chances are, if your county has an issue, another one is experiencing the same problem. All input is welcome, by telephone, e-mail, website, mail or in person.
For more information, visit the TCJS website at http://www.tcjs.state.tx.us/.
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