Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Addressing Texas' Overpopulated Prisons

Last week at a statewide symposium organized by the Bexar County Commissioner, policymakers and criminal justice experts discussed ideas for addressing Texas' overpopulated prisons (Texas has the second largest-prison population in the country). Several panelists expressed concern about the increased criminalization of non-violent offenders with mental illness, which has resulted in severe overcrowding at local jails. The Bexar County Jail, for example, is 96% full.

Here are excerpts from an article that appeared in the San Antonio Express-News ("Suggestions given for overflowing prisons," February 11, 2008):

"Having reached a critical mass in its prison and jail populations, Texas needs to work harder to divert substance abusers and mentally ill inmates from the system, better equip the wave of those who are released each year and implement alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, a group of policymakers and criminal justice experts said Thursday.

Although the state's prison and jail systems have long complained of overcrowding, the situation has become dire, as there are not enough prisons or jails to house those who are arrested every day. And even if there were, experts said, the systems are woefully understaffed for the volume. ..."


"In Bexar County, about 25 percent of the jail's population is mentally ill, said Leon Evans, president of the San Antonio-based Center for Health Care Services, a non-profit partnership with University Hospital that tries to divert mentally ill people before they get arrested. The program has been showcased as a model for other counties and states. Evans estimated the group screens about 500 mentally ill people a month who would otherwise have ended up in jail or in emergency rooms because police officers don't know where to take them.

"There's a growing realization that we have a system of incarceration that mainly deals with the mentally ill or with drug offenders," said Tony Fabelo, the symposium's keynote speaker and director of research for the Council of State Government's Justice Center.

Fabelo said incarceration is such a common experience for some people that it's not regarded as a deterrent to committing crime. In Texas, he said, the growth of the prison population has outpaced that of the state: Between 1980 and 2005, the state jail population jumped 61 percent and the prison population by 310 percent. Meanwhile, the state's overall population grew 61.3 percent.
Nearly two-thirds of felons are re-arrested within three years of their release, said John Byrd, a criminal justice professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio. In Bexar County Jail, Adkisson said, about 81 percent of the inmates have been there before.

Policymakers and elected leaders must make it easier, under certain circumstances, for offenders to post bail, the panelists said, and use better pre-trial services to reduce the number of those awaiting trial. ..."

Read the full article.

1 comment:

JL said...

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