A new jail diversion program proposed Tuesday by state District Judge Cynthia Stevens Kent could reduce Smith County's jail population by as many as 200 inmates.
It could also buy county commissioners time to prepare a comprehensive solution to overcrowding problems at all county facilities, she says.
Nonviolent offenders could be released and required to go to a Day Reporting Center, where they would receive drug and alcohol treatment, job training and day labor jobs, according to Judge Kent.
Her plan would cost an estimated $350,000 in its first year, but with the county spending $3 million or more per year to house inmates in other counties, it would be a bargain, she said. If commissioners vote to fund it, she added, it could be operational by June or July.
State district Judge Carole Clark, county court-at-law Judges Floyd Getz and Tom Dunn, District Attorney Matt Bingham and County Judge-elect Joel Baker joined Judge Kent on Tuesday.
"The local judges, district attorney, defense attorneys and Joel Baker today are offering the framework of a plan to try and deal safely with the jail overcrowding with an incarceration alternative program," said Judge Kent. "This interim solution will enable the commissioners to take the time to address the shortcomings of the last two jail bond proposals; that is, to look at the county's long-term needs and to develop a downtown solution that meets all of the county's needs."
Commissioners shouldn't try to have a jail bond proposal ready for November because, like the two May 13 bond propositions, it would be doomed to failure, she said. The court should wait until Baker and incoming Commissioner-elect Bill McGinnis are seated in January.
"The new Commissioners Court should only put a new bond proposal on the ballot after making a comprehensive and honest disclosure to the public about the real needs and actual costs for making Smith County a safer community," she said.
Alternatives To Jail
"Sheriff (J.B.) Smith has a problem," Judge Kent said Tuesday. "He has too many people in jail. We have to give the sheriff some relief."
With an average of 270 or more prisoners housed in other counties on any given day, at a cost of $41 per person per day, Judge Kent is proposing to provide that relief through an Incarceration Alternative Program. Its key feature would be a "Community Supervision Day Reporting Center."
"Nonviolent offenders who have committed a drug offense or property crime would be referred to the Day Reporting Center for supervision and rehabilitation services," Judge Kent said. "They will report each morning at a designated time and remain until late in the afternoon or evening. They would spend their evenings at home, instead of in jail, but must be at the Day Reporting Center each day."
The Andrews Center would be asked to participate in the program and help in the diagnosis and treatment of mentally ill offenders.
The program would be open to "persons in custody for refusing to pay their child support, theft by check cases, credit card and debit card abuse cases, thefts, forgery cases, other nonviolent offenses and drug cases," Judge Kent said.
"We're not talking about murderers and rapists," she said. "All of what we're doing is about public safety."
Judges would also meet to discuss other issues, including bond settings.
"Do I think that right now, judges and justices of the peace are setting bonds too high? No," said Judge Kent.
But with jail overcrowding such a pressing issue, she said, the judges are willing to talk about how to clear out some beds by rethinking bond amounts and expediting misdemeanor and state jail felony cases.
Also, Judge Kent proposes a drug court that would handle lower-level drug case, in which the main goal would be treatment, not incarceration.
"There are drug courts all over the country," she noted. "Some have more success, some have less. It's all in the details."
The county should also develop ways for inmates to work off their fines and fees, instead of sitting them out in jail, Judge Kent said.
The program's overall success will depend on its careful design and implementation, she said.
Bingham, the county's criminal district attorney and a necessary part of any such program, said he was willing to talk about jail diversion, but if it targets only nonviolent offenders and doesn't overburden law enforcement.
"Is this the solution to all our problems? No," Judge Kent said. "But it's part of a complicated solution to a complicated problem."
Solving the problem will require a comprehensive master facilities plan, she said.
That plan should include a downtown jail site, connected to the current jail and the current courthouse.
It should also eventually include a new criminal courts facility.
"I know that some people will say 'Aha! This is what she wanted all along,'" Judge Kent said. "But we know this courthouse was designed for two courts, and now it houses seven."
All county facilities should be considered when planning for the future, she said.
"Instead of continuing to waste taxpayer dollars, the Smith County commissioners should look to fund a Day Reporting Center and other incarceration alternative programs and allow the (incoming) commissioners court to decide on what master plan should be presented to the voters for their careful consideration."
The planning process should start with "careful dialogue with the members of the business community, public officials, courthouse and jail employees, concerned citizens in Smith County who can provide input as to the needs for a master plan," Judge Kent said.
The county should also look at how other entities have dealt with jail overcrowding.
The process can begin in the meeting commissioners have already planned for May 31, she said, but it should extend to working meetings in coming months.
In a question-and-answer session, Judge Kent posed a question to herself: "Why haven't we done this before?"
It's because in their roles as judges, she and her colleagues have been focused on law enforcement, not facilities management, she said.
"We needed to take a new look at this," she said.
Commissioners JoAnn Hampton and David Stein attended Tuesday's press conference, even as County Judge Becky Dempsey was preparing a letter to Judge Kent asking for a presentation on her inmate reduction plan.
"I think the incarceration alternatives plan is something that has to be looked at," Stein said. "It's something that's been talked about. We've all asked if there are things we can do to lower the jail population."
He said he wants to see more specifics, however, including more exact estimates of the cost. And he said he'd like to see the judges agree to work with the county's collections department as part of the plan.
"But this is a creative idea, and that's what we need," said Stein. "I applaud their effort."
Also in the audience on Tuesday was Commissioner-elect McGinnis.
"I'm happy to see any and all efforts to lower the jail population," he said. "I've been for a master plan for some time. I don't want to be part of a court that is a fire department. We need to plan ahead."
Sheriff Smith said that for such a program to be successful, "it will take everyone here working hard to make it work."
Baker said he's encouraged by the proposal.
"I am pleased that our local judges and district attorney have allowed me to take part in the discussions regarding ideas to reduce our jail population," he said. "I am encouraged that these public servants are willing to work together and consider innovative ideas to save the county money during this jail overcrowding crisis."
The Day Reporting Center
Who Would Be Eligible:
Roy Maynard covers county government and politics. He can be reached at 903-596-6291. e-mail: email@example.com
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