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What Dallas County can teach us about jail overcrowding

Why can’t Harris County be more like Dallas County, at least in this regard?

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Dallas County’s jail population has hit an all-time low. That means more spacious jail tanks and fewer bologna sandwiches.

If the trend continues, it could add up to big savings for taxpayers.

The jail, the seventh-largest in the country, is the biggest expense item in the Dallas County budget, at $107.7 million annually.

For the past two years, the average jail population each month has hovered around 6,100. Last month, it was 5,618.

[…]

County officials said there’s no single explanation for the current population decline. Some possible factors:

1. Fewer book-ins: So far this year, there have been fewer new arrivals than in 2013 and 2014.

2. More diversion programs: For most inmates, the jail serves as a holding facility. From there, they return to society, go to prison or get sent to another institution, such as a drug treatment center or hospital.

A variety of programs can shorten jail stays. Low-risk offenders who can’t post bail can pay a small fee and get out before their trial dates. Some can serve their sentences under house arrest instead. Others go to diversion courts, such as drug court or mental health court, which focus on their particular needs.

A federally funded project helps identify inmates who are mentally ill so they can be moved out of custody and given help. In the past six months, the number of inmates identified as mentally ill has gone up, Stretcher said.

3. New software: Criminal case files have gone digital, thanks to new software launched in the spring.

Now, attorneys, investigators and victim advocates can look at the same file at the same time. They don’t have to pass a paper file from person to person.

Cases can be presented to grand juries faster, which shortens jail stays, said Ellyce Lindberg, an assistant district attorney. The software allows the county to track where cases get stuck.

4. More bus rides to prison: Inmates bound for state prison are shipped out on buses run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Those buses can haul off 150 to 200 people per week, resulting in significant drops in the jail population.

For years, the county has worked to speed up the paperwork needed to move these prisoners. And the reduction in book-ins means there’s been more time to catch up on backlogs.

5. Foul weather: Jail populations typically fluctuate seasonally, said Noonan of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In general in Dallas County, bookings increase in the summer and drop off slightly in the fall and winter.

That pattern may have been thrown off by the exceptionally heavy rains in the past several weeks.

Emphasis mine. This isn’t rocket science. We can choose to keep fewer people in jail if we want to, and we can do so at very little risk to public safety. In every other context when it comes to spending taxpayer money, there are plenty of people there to intone somberly about “making tough decisions” and “living within our means” and so forth. For some reason, they’re not nearly as much a part of this kind of budget discussion. You tell me why that is the case. Link via Grits.

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