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Nueces County Jail Population Needs Reduction

Feb 6th, 2011 | Category: Nueces County

Corpus Christi Caller Times December 7, 2009

Overcrowding is a serious problem at the Nueces County Jail, as reported in our Nov. 22 series, “Paying the price to lock ’em up”

With the jail often at 90 percent of capacity or higher, the risks of violence rise. Sheriff Jim Kaelin put it succinctly: “This is going to explode.”
Unless the county can find ways to reduce the number of inmates to more manageable levels, Kaelin warned, “Inmates are going to get hurt. We’re going to be in trouble with the federal government. We’re going to be in trouble with the state government.”

While the jail is designed for 1,020 inmates, it’s meant to operate at 90 percent of capacity, he said, because certain offenders by law cannot be housed with others. For example, men and women have to be separated. So do members of rival gangs.

Over the past 17 years, only 36 beds have been added to the county jail, while its inmate population has expanded by 14 percent since 2000. A larger jail is needed, Kaelin says. He may be correct. But even if the county could come up with the money to build one, we’re not so sure a new jail would solve the problem. Here’s why:

In 2006, after failing federal inspections the jail lost the federal prisoners that had brought in hefty revenues for the county. Amazingly, it took only six months for the jail to return to 90 percent of capacity. That’s an indication of a systemic problem.

Why is the jail perpetually so crowded? Kaelin blames new laws and expanding police forces, but other counties deal with the same state laws and somehow have much lower jail inmate populations. Is Corpus Christi’s police force that much more effective? Or as County Judge Loyd Neal commented, is it just that “we’ve got a lot of bad people”?

The sheriff does what he can to deal with overcrowding, but he has no control over who gets sent to jail. That’s in the hands of legislators and judges, those who make the laws and apply them.

Without mandatory sentencing guidelines, judges have a lot of discretion regarding the sentences they mete out. They recently got the option of using ankle bracelets for low-risk offenders. We’d like to see them make use of other options as well, such as expanding the diversion program used by Judge Sandra Watts, mostly for drug and alcohol abuse cases.

In fact, many if not most jail inmates are there for substance abuse. Programs like “H.O.P.E” (Helping Open People’s Eyes), available at the jail, can help combat recidivism.

The state has many drug and alcoholism treatment centers, but many people don’t seek help until a crime has been committed and it’s too late. The Kentucky Legislature recently passed a law that offers substance abuse offenders treatment before they go to trial. Those who finish the program can avoid felony charges, according to J. Michael Brown, secretary of the Kentucky Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, writing on a USA Today blog last June. The state also has a new incentive program for inmates. Whereas Kentucky had led the nation in the growth of its inmate population, according to Brown, recidivism and violent crime are both down, as are jail populations and costs. Texas should learn from what Kentucky has done and develop its own programs.

Judge Neal also pointed out that the jail population is affected by backlogs in the district attorney’s office and other procedural problems. If there’s a way to smooth out the process, it should be done.

High inmate populations are costly, both in the risks of violence and in the cost of housing inmates elsewhere. We urge Nueces County officials and the state of Texas to make reduction of jail populations a priority, both to save on jail costs and to help inmates turn their lives around.

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