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Outsourcing inmates continues, case backlog shrinks

Friday, April 26, 2024

Hays County Jail is full and has been outsourcing inmates to other jails for years. Due to the high population of incarcerated people, Hays County has been implementing various programs to attempt to divert people from the jail, such as the mental health court that was recently established and the pretrial services department. Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra has a standing agenda item during each commissioner court meeting in which he reads the current jail population, the amount of inmates outsourced and the cost.

Becerra said he initially began updating the public on jail capacity regularly to enhance the community's understanding of the financial aspects related to incarceration, which amounts to $167 daily per inmate. He said, in addition to that, it will reveal areas for improvement and opportunities for addressing jail overcrowding.

“The maximum capacity of our Hays County Jail is 410 inmates. Jail standards recommend holding 10% of that capacity open, which lowers our capacity to 368. The jail's daily average was 524 and peak was 538 on April 16,” said Becerra at the Hays County Commissioners Court regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. “The estimated cost for outsourcing inmates this week is $165,867. The number of outsourced males is 243 and [the number of] females is seven. … This week’s inmates were housed in the following counties: Comal, Haskell and Maverick. Paper ready inmates have dropped to a wonderful low — 27. Paper ready inmates are those that have had their day in court, have been found guilty and are now state inmates — no longer county.”

Becerra said the ultimate objective is to find more efficient ways to utilize taxpayer funds than transporting individuals long distances for incarceration.

The Vera Institute of Justice has a Hays County Jail Dashboard available on their website with more in depth information on the number of inmates at the jail. It has information on gender, age and ethnicity as well as the amount of time held pretrial. Bea Halbach- Singh, the Vera Institute of Justice Beyond Jails Initiative senior research associate, said that the Vera Institute of Justice started the Hays County Jail Dashboard as part of a broader project to collect information on local jail populations across the country and to make this data available to the public.

The Hays County Jail Dashboard was established “in order to broaden understanding about how jails are being used and their role as the front door to mass incarceration, and to assist communities wanting to evaluate the effects of criminal legal system reforms,” Halbach-Singh said. “The Vera Institute of Justice launched the Hays County Jail Dashboard as part of an effort to provide accurate information about the jail population and make it easily accessible to the public following requests for greater transparency from community members and government stakeholders.”

Becerra said the high number of individuals incarcerated in Hays County can be attributed to several key factors, including the approach towards handling low-level offenses in our current operational model. He also pointed to pretrial detention.

“A considerable part of the jail population is made up of individuals awaiting trial, who have yet to be convicted,” Becerra said, adding that jail capacity is another contributing factor. “The county has invested millions in outsourcing inmate housing due to lack of staff and backlog on cases.”

Hays County District Attorney Kelly Higgins said the backlog refers to cases that have been presented to his office by law enforcement but not yet been reviewed by lawyers for decisions regarding prosecution.

“It is not a static number,” Higgins explained. “New cases pour into the reservoir every day, joining the backlog. And reviewed cases pour out every day. So there is an ongoing flow both in and out.”

When Higgins took office following his election in Nov. 2022, the backlog was at 5,600 cases and was a mix of felonies and misdemeanors.

“Some of the felonies were significant in that there were victims who had not been contacted by our office,” Higgins said. “Of course all these cases deserve timely review, but I mention the felonies with victims because they represent not just a slow pace of work, but a real failure to live up to the mission of the office.”

According to Higgins, the backlog of cases is now at 1,600 with 950 misdemeanors and 650 felonies. He added that a healthy backlog for an office of his size is around 1,000, and his office plans to continue its efforts to reduce it to that number.

“None of these felonies involve victims of violence. Cases of violent felonies are pushed forward to the felony court chiefs as soon as they arrive, and victims are contacted at the very first opportunity. This is a major change that I am very happy about,” Higgins said. “In January 2023 the reservoir was filled with 5,600 cases, and is now about 1,600 cases. But while we were emptying the reservoir, around 5,400 new cases poured into the reservoir. So, we actually reviewed and made decisions on around 11,000 cases through March 15 of this year. That number may be higher or lower by a little, but it’s pretty close. I have to tell you that I campaigned on reducing the backlog, but even I was not optimistic enough to predict these results. I am very proud of this achievement for the office.”

Halbach-Singh said the Vera Institute of Justice has not done a systematic analysis of the specific drivers of incarceration rates in Hays County but can comment on factors that contribute to large incarcerated populations across the country.

“Jails across the country are primarily used to hold people accused of non-violent, low-level charges related to poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance use. Jails are not equipped to help people facing these issues,” Halbach-Singh said. “In Hays County, as in many other places, a large portion of the jail population consists of people being held pretrial, meaning they have been charged with an offense but remain legally innocent, often because they are unable to afford the bail set in their case.”

Halbach-Singh said pretrial incarceration disproportionately impacts people living on low-income, people of color and people experiencing homelessness and mental illness.

“In addition, many people, including in Hays County, are jailed for issues that are non-criminal in nature and related to broader systemic failures in the criminal legal system, such as missing a court appearance and technical violations of probation or bond conditions,” Halbach-Singh said.

According to Becerra, the Hays County Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee is in the process of developing a plan to establish a Respite/ Sobering Center, aiming to provide a supportive environment for individuals in need. He added that Hays County is attempting to address jail population challenges by implementing the following initiatives:

• Introduction of a 'Cite and Release' program. According to the Vera Institute, the cite and release program means people accused of certain misdemeanor crimes are not arrested but cited with instructions to appear later in court.

• Establishment of a Public Defenders Office. According to the Vera Institute website, research suggests that those represented by public defenders have better case outcomes than those represented by appointed counsel, including increased pretrial freedom, shorter sentences and fewer overall pleas or convictions.

• Provision of Padilla Representation services. According to the Hays County website, in 2019, the commissioners court approved a $342,720 grant from the Texas Indigent Defense Commission to implement a Regional Padilla Compliance Pilot Program. Under Padilla v. Kentucky, 559 U.S. 356 (2010) defense attorneys are required to provide individualized counsel to their clients whose immigration status could be affected by a conviction. The grant allowed Hays County to administer a multi-county program through the Texas nonprofit myPadilla, which provides defense attorneys with an online platform to interview clients, submit secure intake forms and receive written advisory information individualized for each of their clients.

• Full staffing of Pretrial services. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, Pretrial Services perform two major functions: Pretrial Officers gather and present information about newly arrested defendants to assist judicial officers in deciding what conditions are to be set for a defendant's pretrial release, and they supervise a defendant's release from custody during the pretrial period to monitor adherence to release conditions and ensuring appearance at scheduled court dates.

• Implementation of 24-Hour Magistration. According to the Law Insider website, magistration is the performance of those duties of a magistrate or judge as outlined in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, including setting bail, inquiring about requests for appointed counsel and informing arrested persons of accusations and rights, to name a few.

• Expansion of programs such as Mental Health Court to provide targeted support. According to the Hays County website, the Mental Health Court is a 12-month, three-phased specialized treatment court designed to address the unique needs of individuals with mental health, substance use and intellectual/developmental disability disorders who have pending legal charges.

Higgins said that the DAs office was able to achieve a reduction in the backlog, which in turn impacts the population at the jail, through several means. When he took office, a new intake division was created, which is led by a senior prosecutor who reviews cases every day and is supported by an assigned legal assistant.

“All non-violent cases go directly to this part of the Intake Division. But violent cases go directly to the Felony Chiefs, [who are] senior lawyers who supervise line prosecutors in their assigned courts. This permits us to make contact with victims very promptly, and allows the Chiefs to get those cases assigned to the line prosecutors. In this way, violent felonies receive the increased attention they deserve, and victims are not left wondering what is going on,” Higgins said. “Additionally, we re-structured our intake division, with the advice and initiative of the team leads, [which are] senior legal assistant supervisors. These Team Leads broke down the tasks necessary for intake, reducing redundancy and creating a more efficient work flow.”

Halbach-Singh said it is important to note that high rates of incarceration have a social and financial impact for incarcerated individuals as well as the rest of the community.

“For individuals, even a short stay in jail can upend someone’s life — from loss of housing, employment, health, family stability and child custody — and make it more likely that people will have further contact with the criminal legal system in the future,” Halbach-Singh said. “Jails also consume a large portion of local budgets — funds that could be deployed toward community-based services and interventions that help to meet people’s basic health and safety needs and prevent interaction with law enforcement.”

When asked similar questions about outsourcing causes and solutions for the Hays County Jail by the Daily Record, the Hays County Sheriff’s Department said they would 'not have a response.'

San Marcos Record

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