Gitting tuffer on plea deals boosting McLennan County Jail costs

The changing of the guard at the McLennan DA’s Office (Waco) in 2010 appears to have resulted in an overcrowded, over-budget county jail as the new District Attorney rejects more plea deals, forcing defendants to wait in jail longer, judging from a Waco Tribune Herald report this week (“McLennan County Sheriff out of money for prisoner overflow,” March 21, behind paywall). The Sheriff has requested emergency funds for the jail, blaming “the rapid spending on an unexpected and prolonged increase in the county’s jail population.” Reported the Trib:

[Sheriff's Captain Paul] Wash said when the sheriff’s office prepared its current budget last spring, the county on average was housing 30 to 40 inmates each day at Harwell.

But by the time the commissioners court approved the budget in August, the inmate population at the county jail started climbing. In the fall months, the sheriff’s office sent an average of 175 to 200 inmates to Harwell [a privately run facility where the county must pay by the head].

The county had 130 inmates at Harwell as of midnight Monday. Plemons said the county jail had only 28 vacant inmate beds.

The Sheriff’s office couldn’t give a definitive cause, citing classification issues (male/female, violent, non-violent) sometimes creating inefficient allocations. But Wash said the main problem is quantitatively more inmates housed at the jail, stemming either from “an increase in arrests made by law enforcement agencies throughout the county, or [else] fewer inmates are being offered or accepting plea deals, thus staying in jail longer while awaiting trial,” the paper reported.

The data isn’t available yet (to me, anyway) to tell for sure, but Grits believes DA decision making and policy changes are the more likely cause of extra inmates than increased arrests. After all, crime statewide has been declining and Waco is among the cities that saw a massive drop in traffic enforcement by local police in 2011, with municipal courts processing just under 14,000 traffic cases in 2011 compared to 19,582 in 2010. That’s more than a 28% drop. Since so many arrests on other charges originate at traffic stops, it seems unlikely there were significantly more arrests in McLennan County in 2011 with traffic tickets down that much and overall crime trending downward. Indeed, just last year the same reporter was lamenting declining inmate numbers at the jail and exploring the cause of lower crime rates to explain them.

Instead, it’s far more likely changes in plea bargaining stances by rookie DA Abel Reyna account for the biggest difference. There was a report just last month about  the DA’s office implementing a strict policy on DWIs that caused Reyna’s former law partner Damon Reed to predict rising costs for the county:

Reed said the result of the new policy is not justice and only will force defendants to plead “open to the court” seeking a better deal with a judge. In “open” pleas, offenders plead guilty and ask judges to set punishments without the benefit of plea agreements.

The other option is to go to trial, further clogging court dockets and costing taxpayers more to operate the judicial system, Reed said.

“Abel is clearly doing all this for political purposes,” Reed said. “I don’t understand why he has a budget for so many assistant prosecutors when they are not allowed to do their jobs. I’ll buy him a rubber stamp and he can lay a half-dozen prosecutors off and save the county a whole lot of money.

Now we see it’s not just court dockets clogged as a result of this and similar plea-bargain policies but also the county jail. If the DA is negotiating fewer plea deals with DWI (and presumably other classes of) defendants, no wonder the jail population is rising! Moreover, the timing of Waco’s jail population rise coincides roughly with the new DA’s changes in plea bargaining policies.

In fact, the McLennan DA’s example is almost a case study of tuff-on-crime policies equating directly to getting tuff on the taxpayers, with little identifiable public safety benefit. Jails and criminal justice generally are behemoths in county budgets, and small policy changes can have big budget consequences. Whether county commissioners, reporters or for that matter McLennan County voters make the connection is another matter. But those who want to avoid county tax hikes should dislike Reyna’s new plea policies based on budget considerations unless a stronger case can be made that increased pretrial detention boosts public safety. In most instances, certainly on routine DWIs, the cost-benefit analysis just isn’t there to support it.

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