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Hays report predicts only modest uptick in inmates

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 by Austin Monitor

A new report on the justice system and jail population of Hays County predicts only a slight increase in the daily average number of inmates over the next 10 years, even as the general population of the county continues to grow significantly.


The report, by national research and consulting firm MGT, is the most comprehensive analysis of the Hays County criminal justice system ever done, according to Pct 2 Commissioner Jeff Barton, who helped instigate the year-long study.


Barton hailed the report as “extraordinarily good news” for the county that will help save millions of taxpayer dollars.


“I think this report makes pretty clear that we have other options besides just building a new jail,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we have to close that option down, but it’s clear now that what we don’t have to do is build a 900- or 1,000-bed jail.”


The report forecasts that the average total inmate population of Hays County, which was 312 in 2009, will only increase to 329 by 2020 — an average annual growth rate of just 0.5 percent. Under a “worst case” scenario, the total inmate population would increase to 361 by 2020. The jail’s current total capacity is 362.


County Judge Liz Sumter was more skeptical about the numbers, voicing concerns that the MGT study did not take into account a 2007 study by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that predicted Hays County would need to be able to house hundreds more inmates by 2020. The disparity between the jail commission’s forecast and MGT’s report prompted Sumter to question the quality of the data MGT used.


“I think there are a lot of issues that are not addressed in the study and aren’t addressed in the renovation of the jail,” she said. “Eventually we’re going to outgrow that space. The question becomes, is it the time now to buy, and is it the time now to move to the technology that allows you to have a lot less personnel cost and yet still increase the size (of the jail).”


Hays County is in the final stages of a massive renovation project at the 21-year-old jail facility after the jail commission in November ordered the closure of the jail’s kitchen, citing health and safety violations. To date, the county has spent about $2 million on kitchen renovations and a new roof.


Since last fall, commissioners have wrangled over the best way to solve the county’s jail problems, with Sumter often suggesting the county needs to consider constructing a new, modern facility. Such a project could cost up to $60 million, even as the county is set to break ground on the 233,600-square-foot Government Center Friday — a project with a $72 million price tag — as well as massive road bond projects.


The report did contain some objectively good news about the county, which reportedly has a declining crime rate that puts it well below the state average. Despite record population growth — from 96,645 in 2000 to 148,477 in 2008, a total increase of more than 53 percent — reported crime has decreased.


James Austin, president of the JFA Institute, worked with MGT to model population projections for the county jail through 2020. He told commissioners that there are policy choices that could reduce the overall inmate population even as the general population of the county increases.


“Any forecast I come up with will ultimately be wrong,” Austin said. “Because the forecasts are based on assumptions about policy decisions. Jail population basically is a product of all those decisions. So when we do a forecast, we are modeling those policies that are in place currently.”


Despite the prediction of a slight increase in inmate population over the next decade, the report did recommend the county increase the jail’s bed capacity from 48 to 96. That expanded capacity should be combined with other recommendations designed to increase the efficiency of the county’s criminal justice system, the report said. Those recommendations include the establishment of a pretrial services program that could assist judges in making decisions on bond amounts and streamline the process of court-appointed counsel. In addition, the report recommended an electronic monitoring program, which would be cheaper than housing inmates in the county jail.


After MGT presented its report, commissioners asked Brenda Jenkins of Broaddus & Associates whether it would be possible to expand capacity at the current jail facility, given its age and condition.


“If it were 500 beds, we’d have a problem,” she said. “But not 96.” She added that it might be possible to add as many as 200 more beds to the current jail facility. During the renovation of the kitchen and the replacement of the roof, Jenkins said, they realized the building is more structurally sound than they initially thought and could handle a major expansion.


Jenkins estimated that Broaddus & Associates could add 96 beds to the jail for less than $25 million.

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