by BRAD ROLLINS
Seeming to settle a hot button issue that has dogged the Commissioners Court for more than a year, a consultant’s wide-ranging study of the Hays County criminal justice system says the existing jail will serve the county’s needs for the next decade with an addition of about 100 new beds.
Officials can expect the jail population to remain relatively flat over the next 10 years with an average population of 321 and a peak population of 361 in 2020. That population can be accommodated at the 362-bed Hays County Law Enforcement Center on Uhland Road in San Marcos with the addition of 48-96 beds. The jail needs the extra space to handle incarceration standards like segregating male and female inmates and those with medical and mental conditions.
“Today we have good news about the jail and good news about the criminal justice system as well… It doesn’t mean we won’t need to put serious dollars into our jail but it changes the equation dramatically,” said Pct. 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, who initiated the study last year.
The jail situation has been fraught with political implications since the Texas Commissioner on Jail Standards ordered the facility’s kitchen shut down in November and threatened more extreme sanctions. That order was later set aside on appeal but not before Sheriff Tommy Ratliff and County Judge Elizabeth Sumter used the occasion to argue for the construction of a new jail, saying the county would need 600 to 1,000 beds in coming years.
Brenda Jenkins of Broaddus and Associates said the current jail site has more than enough room to accommodate needed expansion. She estimated the addition of beds and renovation of the existing facility at “less than $25 million,” a fraction of the $50-60 million price tag of a new jail.
“The jail commission would prefer counties to build enough beds where you have some real flexibility but you also don’t want to be in a position where you’re telling taxpayers why you overbuilt,” said Margo Frasier, a former Travis County sheriff who is a principal at MGT. Later she added, “There are a lot of folks who are in the jail building business saying ‘Build extra, build extra.’”
At Tuesday’s Commissioners Court session when results of the jail study were outlined, Sumter suggested that the numbers MGT used to create its projections were inadequate. She hung the argument largely on a 2007 study by the Jail Standards Commission that indicated the need for a much larger facility.
“The quality of the data that went into this is my biggest question,” Sumter said.
For his part, Ratliff – a vocal proponent of a costly new jail just a month ago – pointedly declined to take exception with the report’s findings. Asked if the study’s anticipation of small growth in jail population squared with his expectations, he said, “It’s not my job to make that prediction… It’s [the commissioners court’s] job to tell what the future holds.”
Besides findings on the jail population, the MGT study identified other areas in which the county can streamline its criminal justice system.
Among these, the study said, the county does not adequately use its Odyssey data management system. In addition, the county should invest in a program like electronic monitoring for probationers and consider a pretrial program to winnow low-risk offenders from those who need to be contained in jail. Additionally, the study said, the county should coordinate between justices of the peace and higher courts to set standards for bail.
Commissioners emphasized that MGT’s recommendations are nonbinding and will need to be implemented with input from elected officials who comprise the backbone of the local criminal justice system. Nevertheless, the study gives decisionmakers information they need to make plans for the future, officials said.
Said Pct. 3 Commissioner Will Conley, “It’s a great time to take a deep breath in Hays County. We have been flying for the last decade… Making this investment in planning I think is going to pay off in the long run.”Email | Print