|County warned to ease jail crowding 'without delay'|
|Kerry Craig | News-Telegram Assistant Editor|
Dec. 10, 2004 -- The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has warned Hopkins County officials to correct crowded conditions in the county jail immediately or face possible commission action.
The county jail, which is certified for about 100 inmate beds, has exceeded that number in each of the last three months according to the state agency, and the problem must be addressed by county officials "without delay," according to the letter from the jail standards commission received this week by County Judge Cletis Millsap and Sheriff Butch Adams
Jail overcrowding and commission requirements present somewhat of a "catch-22" situation for the sheriff. When offenders are arrested, they must be held in custody until a trial can be held. If a prison sentence is ordered after a conviction, that defendant must be held in the county jail until space is available in the state prison system.
Adams said Wednesday he did not think he could do anything to relieve the situation
"Basically the ball is in their [commissioners] court. I don't have the power to do anything, I don't think," Sheriff Adams said. "That is something where the commissioners and county judge are going to sit down and decide what they want to do and what action they are going to take from here on out."
Overcrowded conditions have been a concern at Hopkins County Jail for some time and the sheriff and county commissioners have had some discussion on the possibility of expanding the current jail or constructing a new one.
"It is inevitable," said Millsap. "You are going to have to plan for the future, and probably a jail expansion is somewhere in the future simply because we are under pressure from the letter from the Commission on Jail Standards that for the past three months, we have been over 100 percent of jail capacity."
"Our first reaction is, we are concerned about the numbers being up again," the judge said. "It is just a situation where the commissioners and I will get together and discuss it."
Texas Commission on Jail Standards Executive Director Terry Julian said the letter gives notice to the county that immediate steps need to be taken to resolve the overcrowding.
"This is just the first 'fire across the bow' to alert them," Julian said. "Hopefully this will initiate a dialog between the county and us to get this resolved or they need to initiate action to move inmates to other counties or whatever they feel like in their situation needs to happen to reduce the population in the jail so that everybody has a bed."
The commission director offered some suggestions that could help relieve the number of county jail inmates.
"Whatever means the county can take by getting folks through court quicker or releasing some of those with class C misdemeanors, there is a myriad of things that can be done," Julian said. "They may need to sit down and have a heart-to-heart talk with folks in the courts and talk about how we can address this and get back within the capacity of the jail."
Adams said that, for the short term, neighboring counties might be able to house some of the county's prisoners, but that would be expensive.
Housing county jail inmates in other counties would cost in the neighborhood of $40 per day per prisoner. Transporting prisoners to the other counties and back and forth for court appearances would add to that cost in both fuel and salaries for the deputies.
The county judge said housing prisoners in another county would come only as a last resort.
"I don't want to spend any money to house any of these [inmates] anywhere else but here in Hopkins County," Millsap said. "That is just an added expense, and if I can prevent that, I am going to do everything in my power to help the sheriff run the jail on the money that we have allocated in the budget."
The sheriff also said there would be complaints from families of those inmates being housed in other counties.
If the county fails to move to immediately reduce inmate population in the county jail, the state jail commission would be forced to move forward to enforce the county's compliance with commission requirements.
"This is just an initial step in working with the county to make sure, if we can, that they, on their own, reduce that population without us coming in and being heavy-handed and forcing the standards on them," Julian said.
If the county fails to bring the jail into compliance with the standards, it could be called into a meeting with the jail standards commission. At that meeting, the jail standards commission staff would recommend a remedial order to reduce the jail population within 30 days by sending inmates to other counties that have certified jails.
"The remedial order is more severe and can eventually take the county to court if they fail to comply with the remedial order," Julian said. "We could take them to court to force them to comply with the remedial order. That's the last step we would take."
The commission director said that, along with remedial order, the county jail could be decertified, which would mean any county prisoners, current or future, would have to be housed in another jail.
In a response letter, the county judge acknowledged the overcrowding but blamed a portion of the problem on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, noting inmates who are TDCJ-ready are not being transported to a state facility in a timely manner.
"I am going to be knocking on some doors in the next few days to see what I can do to get TDCJ to get these people expedited to their facility," Millsap said.
"They would probably try to work with us, but I don't see it being too much of a help," Sheriff Adams said. "They [TDCJ] are getting crowded. When they put one out the door, we are putting them in."
Millsap said he has already had a meeting with 8th Judicial District Judge Robert Newsom.
"I think there are some issues that will have to be resolved in how we do our paper work," Millsap said. "Those issues could involve how the process is done so we can get a turnaround on people that are brought back to the county on bench warrants, how we get people through the system so that justice is served, and if people are TDCJ ready, hopefully get the state to help get these people placed where they are supposed to be."
Millsap said he would also be seeking longer term help from the state legislature and other state officials to see if beds in the state prison system could be opened up to more quickly in order to move prisoners from the county jail to prisons.
Millsap said the jail commission would not let the county "drag this out any longer than absolutely necessary."