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Hays County, Jail, jail population study, Vera Institute for Justice, San Marcos, San Marcos News, San Marcos Record

Hays County, in partnership with the Vera Institute for Justice, launched a jail population study on Monday. Above, a Zoom press conference was held, announcing the study's beginning. Screenshot via Zoom

Hays County launches jail population study

Monday, March 22, 2021

Hays County, in partnership with the Vera Institute for Justice, launched the long anticipated jail population study Monday. 

“Never before has this information been charted and made so easily accessible to decision makers and the public,” Precinct 3 Commissioner Lon Shell said. “The Hays County Jail Population Dashboard will allow us to make sound decisions for our criminal justice system based on granular, real-time data. We are partnering with the Vera Institute of Justice to analyze who is in jail and why, so we can see where taxpayer resources are going and how we can reduce the jail population while simultaneously improving public safety.”

The public-facing dashboard provides fresh data every two weeks on the Hays County Jail population in an attempt to study the drivers and consequences of incarceration. The Hays County Jail Dashboard will enable timely insight into the Hays County Jail population, furthering good governance, community oversight of the local justice system and evidence-driven policy reforms, Vera said in a press release.

The dashboard was developed in partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice’s In Our Backyards (IOB) initiative. The IOB team developed the innovative Jail Population Project to provide granular, real-time data about local jail populations. 

“Nearly every community in the country has a jail, and everyone is impacted by the policy and public spending choices that drive or reduce jail incarceration in their backyards,” said Jasmine Heiss, Director of Vera’s In Our Backyards initiative. “In Hays County, and across the country, the majority of the people occupying jail beds are unconvicted, and nearly everyone in the nation’s jails is marginalized. Helping to shine sunlight on this facet of our justice system can equip policymakers and communities to address the harms of the criminal legal system and ensure that public safety means the safety of everyone.” 

The anonymized information Vera receives from Hays County is used to generate jail population statistics, separated into categories such as bail amount, charge, gender and race, to provide insights into how counties and states are using their jails. 

The dashboard shows, like most places in the country, the Hays County legal system disproportionately interacts with Black people, who make up just 4.6% of the county population but 15.8% of the Hays County Jail population. While there is no information about the socioeconomic status of the people in jail, the impact of money bail speaks to the poverty of most justice system-involved people: 80% of people in the county jail are being held pretrial — most on bonds that are $25,000 or less. 

These data points highlight important questions about inequities in the justice system and opportunities for reform.

“Behind this data is a human cost,” Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe said. “We've only just started collecting the data, but it’s already raised important questions, and revealed opportunities for intervention. The dashboard enables us to view and analyze all available data so we can act faster, do better, and implement policy changes that ensure that individuals who shouldn’t be in jail, aren’t in jail. Unfortunately, in many of these cases, individuals require a different kind of support and services, and we need to make sure that’s available to them in the community. We will continue to work together to ensure that we are safeguarding people’s civil liberties and ensuring true public safety, for everyone in our community.”

By making this newly available public-facing dashboard, Hays County has underscored a commitment to understanding how jail incarceration impacts the community’s diverse population.  

“Mano Amiga is proud to see Hays County leaders like Commissioner Shell and Commissioner Ingalsbe join with Vera to ensure far greater transparency — and, therefore, the potential for superior policymaking that confronts the evil of unnecessary mass incarceration — by way of this Jail Population Project,” said Jordan Buckley, Communications Director for Mano Amiga. “We applaud county officials for this vital step forward, and urge them to expand on this important achievement by pursuing a public defender office and cite & divert program with urgency — particularly now that we are equipped with a superb dashboard to monitor the impacts of these best practices for prudently transforming our criminal legal system."

With this tool, stakeholders and community members can ask more detailed and informed questions, monitor real-time change, identify gaps in needed services and resources and implement better policy. 

“We don’t know there is no way to tackle the disparities,” said Shell in a press conference Monday morning. “First we have to understand what it is and we have to be able to see it ... The best thing is to get the data, let the data speak for itself.”

Hays County’s innovative approach provides a national model for counties committed to data transparency, community engagement and ongoing oversight of local justice systems. 

Anyone can access and review the Hays County Jail Population Dashboard at https://hayscountytx.com/jaildashboard/.

San Marcos Record

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