MGT Senior Associate Margo Frasier and JFA Institute President James Austin at the April 27 commissioners court meeting. Photo by Sean Batura.
By SEAN BATURA
The county should not scrap its jail just yet, according to the results of a study released Tuesday by MGT of America, Inc.
Instead, MGT told Hays County commissioners that they could streamline the county’s justice system, add eight dozen beds to the current jail and imprison fewer people. The county budgeted $206,030 for the study, which was developed, in part, by JFA Institute.
MGT Senior Manager Margo Frasier told commissioners they should increase prisoner capacity at the jail by 96 new beds. Broaddus and Associates (B&A) Vice President and Austin Area Manager Brenda Jenkins, whose firm oversaw the MGT study and conducted a physical assessment of the jail, told court members the 96 beds may be added for less than $25 million.
Extensive repairs to the jail, with attendant costs budgeted at $1,678,456, have almost concluded. The repairs, which included renovation of the kitchen, new plumbing valves and replacement of the roof, were initiated after the jail failed multiple state inspections late last year. Some commissioners — notably Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley (R-Wimberley) and Precinct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton (D-Kyle) — said the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ (TCJS) was not fully aware of all the county was doing to come into compliance with state law, and that the agency’s governing body may have been too hasty in ordering the jail’s kitchen closed.
Conley and Barton cited the passing grades given to the jail by City of San Marcos and county health inspectors the week after TCJS issued the order to close the jail kitchen. TCJS Executive Director Adan Muñoz said the scores issued by the health inspectors were not good enough for the state.
“In our situation, it’s either pass or fail,” Muñoz said. “And, obviously, even at a score of 82, 84, whatever it is, that tells me that there’s severe demerits, and it would at least be obvious that they need to do something to correct it, which they have. So we may not all be in agreement on the front end, but I think we all reach the same conclusion in the end.”
A mobile kitchen, which the county is renting for $11,200 per month, has been operational at the jail since early February pending the completion of kitchen renovations.
Barton, Conley, and Precinct 4 Commissioner Karen Ford (D-Dripping Springs) expressed support for expanding the existing jail rather than building a new one. County Judge Liz Sumter (D-Wimberley) said building a new jail should still be considered because the county may outgrow the current facility just as the debt incurred from the cost of the proposed expansion is paid back, and because of what she said are operational inefficiencies at the current jail that entail twice the staffing as a more modern system to allow for easier supervision of prisoners.
County officials have ballparked the cost of a new jail at $50-60 million.
Frasier, a former Travis County sheriff, said Hays County’s jail may last another 30 years with proper care. B&A Senior Project Manager Phillip Buterbaugh told commissioners earlier this month that the jail could have “a useful life of 30-50 more years with proper work done now, at its approximate 20-year birthday.”
Frasier said some of the study’s recommendations may be expensive, but will save money in the long run. For example, the MGT study recommends the establishment of a pretrial services program to assist justices of the peace (JPs) in making decisions regarding bond amounts, to help JPs figure out whether or not to grant personal recognizance bonds, to streamline the process of appointing lawyers, and facilitate timely release of low-risk offenders from jail while awaiting trial, thus freeing bed spaces at the jail.
Commissioners didn’t vote to accept the study, but agreed to examine it further, and made it known that their acceptance of the report would not signify agreement with all the document’s recommendations. The court may choose to expand B&A’s scope of work to include programming for the proposed addition of 96 beds.
Sumter said the MGT study should have made use of data included in a 2007 TCJS study, which, she said, concluded the county would need 412 beds in 2010. Frasier replied that the TCJS study was too heavily based on the idea that an increase in population implies an increase in the crime rate and number of inmates.
The Hays County Jail has 362 beds, but uses about 300 of them due to considerations involved in managing inmate populations. The county outsources about five dozen prisoners to the Guadalupe County Jail, which was costing the county about $100,000 per month as of December.
Barton said the TCJS study was “a number of years old,” a “much more cursory look, a much more superficial look” than the MGT study, and he said the TCJS study’s authors claimed the growth of Texas State entailed a need for more jail beds, a finding not in accord with the MGT study.
“Your population has grown significantly in the last 10 years and it’s projected to grow even larger in the next 20 to 30 years,” said JFA Institute President James Austin. “The crime rate has been dropping. There was a slight (increase) in 2008, but generally the crime rate has been falling, falling at a faster rate than most of the State of Texas. So what’s going on here? We looked at your peer counties. You’re crime rate is a blessing. You have a very low crime rate. Your crime rate is about half that of the State of Texas — violent and property crime. And then in the peer counties, you’re about a third less than your peer counties.”
Austin said Texas State may be the primary reason why Hays County’s crime rate is comparatively low. Austin said places with large universities are beneficially affected in the areas of demographics, employment and crime rate.
“Certainly, the university, I think, has had a very positive impact on the county with respect to crime rates,” Austin said.
In the last five months, Sumter said the county’s prisoner capacity may soon need to be expanded by 1,000 beds, and expressed support for a new jail.
The MGT study’s authors concluded the county can also manage its jail’s population with “minor outsourcing.”
Four months into fiscal year (FY) 2010, the county broke its $350,000 budget for housing prisoners in Guadalupe County. Frasier, Sheriff Tommy Ratliff and others have said the county has been housing more prisoners in Guadalupe County than normal due to roof repairs, which have concluded. As of April 1, the county spent $464,200 on “contract detention.” Commissioners recently moved $300,000 from reserves into the contract detention line item.
Frasier said that if the jail is expanded and other MGT study recommendations are followed, prisoners will not have to be housed in Guadalupe County, except during peaks in the inmate population.
Commissioners saved $450,000 by not replacing the jail’s heating ventilation & air conditioning (HVAC) system. During a commissioners court meeting in March, Buterbaugh said the HVAC system is past it’s useful life.
“They’re keeping it strung together with duct tape and baling wire,” Buterbaugh said. “At some point soon, you’re going to have to replace it.”
Court members also saved thousands on jail repairs by having county staff instead of private contractors install the new plumbing valve equipment.
According to the MGT study, the practice of law enforcement issuing citations in lieu of incarceration is not being used as much as it could be.
“Given the number of offenders who are booked into the Hays County Jail for citable offenses, the program is one that could be expanded,” the MGT study states.
The MGT study’s authors claim the county has failed to adequately use existing technology, such as the integrated data management system. The study advises the county to require representatives from the system’s major user departments to confer with one another and with the information technology director.
The MGT study claims a video conferencing system purchased by the county for $50,000 to be used for video arraignment has never been implemented.
The MGT study recommends the county use the video arraignment process to address problems associated with transporting offenders.
“The county also purchased security cameras for court rooms, which have also never been installed,” the MGT study states.
Other recommendations by the MGT study to optimize the justice system include:
• The holding of a formal, second magistration docket by JPs once a set number of inmates are in need of magistration.
• The use of personal recognizance bonds to a greater degree in order to reduce delay and costs to the offender or the offender’s family.
• The addition of an additional jail misdemeanor docket to occur on an automatic basis as soon as the jail population reaches a certain amount. The docket should focus on the offenders unable to make bail and, thereby, determine if a plea is appropriate or whether the offender should be considered for release on personal recognizance bond.
• The development of a bond schedule for common misdemeanors and felonies.
• The establishment of a pretrial services program to 1) assist JPs in determining bond amount, 2) determine whether to grant a personal recognizance bond, and 3) streamline the court appointment of counsel process.
• The implementation of caseflow systems that enable early assessment of prospects for non-trial resolution of cases and facilitate the early resolution of cases unlikely to be tried.
• The addition of a jail misdemeanor docket to the county courts at law so that when the jail population reaches a certain amount, the docket occurs on an automatic basis. This docket should focus on the offenders who have not been able to make bail and determine if a plea is appropriate or whether the offender should be considered for release on personal recognizance bond.
• The implementation of a differentiated felony case management system by the district courts to expedite processing.
• The establishment of a system to hold court-appointed attorneys accountable for meeting with defendants, in accordance with the requirements of the Fair Defense Act passed by the state legislature in 2001.
• The amendment of the county’s indigent plan to enable more frequent payments to court-appointed attorneys, and the implementation of an expedited payment system to help ensure adequate participation in the indigent program.
• The initiation of a study to determine the feasibility of implementing an electronic or GPS monitoring program for offenders as a way to keep the jail population low while developing alternative supervision options.