The High Price of Indicriminate Incarceration
Commissioner Tommy Adkisson
September 2, 2004
Bexar County exists principally though not exclusively to deliver health at the University Health System and justice through the courts, the jail, the District Attorney's Office and et cetera. Because of this link to justice, last Friday night I had the honor and privilege of addressing the new graduates of the Bexar County Detention Academy run by the Bexar County Sheriff's Office. These are the brave young men and women who secure our community's major lock-up facility we know as the jail. They are sharp-looking and well-prepared to enter service.
Just review what they have studied in order to receive a Basic Jailer Certification: legal aspects of the job, cultural awareness, civil rights, fire fighting principles, report writing, use of force, handcuffing techniques, defensive tactics, facility security, inmate rights, basics in ground fighting, 24 hours of firearms training, investigation, liability, courtroom demeanor, inmate visitation, sudden in-custody death syndrome, inmate rights and privileges, ethics, violent inmates, disruptive groups, booking, identification, releasing and classification procedures, communicable diseases, jail concepts, contraband searches of inmates, persons with mental disabilities, suicide screening, survival Spanish, and Texas Commission on Jail Standards rules. Whew!
The Tax on Thoughtlessness
Back in the 1980's when I was a State Representative, we had some serious prison overcrowding. The prison experts told us: "Ladies and gentlemen, you have a problem you cannot build your way out of." I never forgot the wise words of those experts. Like so many issues in public life, you can showboat or demagogue about an issue and mislead the public or you can attempt to enlighten, delve deeper into the subject and fix the root cause of the problem! Think and act or pay a tax on thoughtlessness!
Of one thing I am certain: I want plenty of jail space for those that need to be in our jail, but not one single cell for someone who has no business in our maximum security jail. Therein lays the problem: not all prisoners are in need of a maximum security jail cell. Taxpayers cannot afford to finance unlimited numbers of maximum security jail cells! Every 400 inmates per year costs Bexar County $7.2 million!
At present however, due to a serious incarceration mentality, we have a significant number of lesser offenders that are sent to jail not just here but all over the country instead of to minimum-security facilities. As a result we have bloated jails and prisons. And we end up having less money for better salaries and working conditions of the detention guards working in the jail, among other things.
As a reflection of the incarceration mentality that drives extraordinary prison population levels, my research found the following relative to the world, other states in the U.S. and U.S. counties:
World: U.S. has 1,962,220 inmates derived from a population of 286 million while China has a lesser 1,428,126 million inmates from a population of 1.285 billion people. (Source: Home Office, Great Britain)
States: Texas has 164,222 inmates derived from a population of 22 million people while California has 163,361 inmates from a much larger population of 35 million people. New York has 65,914 inmates from a population of 18 million! (Source Book, Governing Magazine)
Counties: Of the top 50 inmate jail populations, Los Angeles County has 21,184 inmates; Harris has 7,300, Dallas has 6,814 and Bexar County, the 21st largest in the nation has 3,597. Actually, our population was at 3,950 as of last Friday. (Source Book, Governing Magazine and Bexar County Sheriff's Office, Detention)
The Ultimate Solution
- One size does not fit all! Let's put a square peg in a square hole; round peg in a round hole! To place a person with outstanding traffic warrants or similar offenses in our maximum security jail with a violent offender is inappropriate and expensive!
- Let's keep our lesser, non violent offenders working in Work Release and require them to pay their room and board to the County, child support or restitution if applicable, court costs and fines, but bottom line: keep them working! To do this we should develop a larger work release capacity in a separate minimum security facility.
- At the same time, develop a range of appropriate alternatives to maximum-security incarceration such as drug alcohol centers, geographical information systems, electronic monitoring and voice verification where appropriate. This will also contribute to a far more functional society.
- In keeping with these thoughts, I will propose that over and above existing allocations for detention officers, money saved from responsibly decreasing the population of the Bexar County Jail be invested in the compensation of our detention officers until a pre-agreed-to market value on detention salaries has been reached.
- I have encouraged the new detention guards to be a part of their association and a part of the solution to unnecessary, bloated jail population so we can invest in the people that run the jail, and beyond. Part of the "beyond" includes the fight against rising taxes, excellence in service delivery and more.
Although not covered in this article, an accurate picture of true costs must include indirect costs of incarceration such as the loss of employment among lesser offenders not placed on work release or some alternative form of incarceration. I look forward to keeping you posted on the progress of our work with the Bexar County Jail and as always, invite your comments on this or any other of the vital issues of the day!