Mass incarceration may end not with a bang but a whimper, and a lot of whining

Regular Grits readers know well that many Texas counties in the last decade have built speculative jails with capacity far beyond their own county’s needs hoping to house extra prisoners for profit, only to see the incarceration bubble begin to burst in the last year or so just as the supply of jail beds maxxed out. Mike Ward has a story today in the Austin Statesman (“County, private lockups sit empty, drain money as Texas prisoners dwindle,” April 1) developing those themes, which opens:

The dusty West Texas ranch town of Anson, once known for its no-dancing law made famous in the 1984 movie “Footloose,” has a dubious new claim to fame: the Jail to Nowhere.

Completed almost two years ago to house 1,100 state convicts who never arrived, the $35 million lockup sits empty at the edge of the town of about 2,300 people. Its promise of creating 195 jobs and a $5 million annual boost to the local economy is just a distant, and bitter, memory for most folks.

“It’s been a huge disappointment,” said Jones County Judge Dale Spurgin, who has lobbied state officials for two years without success for help to avoid an approaching default on the bonds that were issued to build the lockup.

“We’ve been holding our breath for 22 months. … It looks like we’re going to have to keep on holding it.”

Spurgin is not alone.

In fact, research by the Austin American-Statesman shows, the situation is increasingly common in Texas and across the country because of declining crime rates, government budget cuts and increased use of treatment programs that have deflated a 20-year boom in building jails and prisons.

Although having fewer people locked up should be good news for Texas taxpayers, as the associated costs of Lone Star justice go down, the trend is drawing few cheers in Jones County and other places where taxes are going up to pay for the empty lockups.

Retiring House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden said at the end of the story that counties couldn’t count on state government to bail them out, even if they funded the speculative investment with taxpayer-backed bonds. “The state is not in a position to bail them out,” said Madden. “Sad to say, but they made a business choice, and they’re going to have to live with it at some point.”

One sometimes hears candidates speak approvingly of “running government like a business,” but businesses routinely accept a LOT more risk than county governments can or should ever consider when making decisions, say, about who to incarcerate or how much taxpayer-backed debt to take on. These counties described in Ward’s story tried to run their jails like a business, and look what happened!

Ward identifies some of the trends frequently discussed on this this blog to explain the surfeit of county lockups.

For a time, Texas rode the wave with the largest number of privately financed or run prisons and jails of any state — 60 in all, by this year.

Then, about five years ago, growth in the number of state prisoners nationally began to gradually level off, and states that had sent their overflow to the private Texas lockups started keeping them at home again. The private lockups looked to a booming new market: illegal immigrants.

“The feds are pulling back right now, as well, and that, plus fewer inmates here in Texas, is the reason a lot more beds are empty now,” said Adan Munoz Jr., the Jail Standards Commission’s executive director.

“The other reason is that a lot of counties are doing pre-trial diversion, so they don’t keep as many people in jail, because it costs less money that way. … Budgets are tight.”

Judging from this evolving grass roots narrative of sad, empty jails built on spec in rapidly depopulating rural areas, sometimes backed by bonds approaching junk status that could default at any time, mass incarceration may go out not with a bang but a whimper. And a lot of whining, if county pols quoted in the story are any indication.

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