Tarrant County is moving forward with jail reform grant

By Ali Montag

Tarrant County is applying for federal money to look into lowering incarceration rates.
The Tarrant County Commissioners’ Court voted unanimously in March for the county to apply for a grant aimed at reducing jail populations by looking into unnecessary incarcerations.
Commissioner Roy Brooks said that while Tarrant County has one of the lower jail populations in the state, there are still problems to fix.
“We have a disproportionate presence in our jail of minorities and poor people,” Brooks said.
Criminal Justice Coordinator Les Smith, who presented the proposal, said the composition of the prison population should be closely analyzed.
“We want to keep our jail beds for those that are flight risks and really need to be there,” Smith said.
The highest monthly average jail population for Tarrant County in 2014 was in August with 3804 inmates.
According to the graph, the average number of felonies filed during August is roughly 40 percent of the number of inmates from that month in 2014, meaning that the other approximately 60 percent are in jail for lesser crimes.
Many inmates are simply waiting for their trial.
People who are in jail waiting for their appearance in court is a costly reason for increased populations, according to the Tarrant County Texas Adult Criminal Justice Data Sheet.
“Many men and women cannot afford the bond that would allow them to return to the community prior to trial,” according to the sheet. “Others are not given that option by judges, despite presenting little flight risk or posing no danger to public safety. This leads to unnecessary and costly jail overcrowding.”
In 2012, the average cost to the Tarrant County taxpayer for the pre-trial population’s jail time was $105,197 per day, according to the sheet.
Tarrant County does have a Pre-Trial Diversion Program that tries to get individuals out of jail on a lower bond, Jerry Rucker, records manager for the Tarrant county sheriff’s office said in an email.
Smith said that mentally ill inmates could contribute to crowding. If such a person commits a crime, even one like vagrancy or trespassing, the county has to deal with it.
“Police and jail officials have to take the person into custody and give them shelter and care even if they’re seriously mentally ill and they had no criminal intent,” Smith said. “We rely on the jails to handle a lot of our problems.”
Smith said that there is a lot more attention being paid to the issue of mental health incarceration now.
“Soon you’ll carve that section out of our jails and into a mental health center,” Smith said.
Some communities are already making changes. According to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, three Tarrant County suburbs hired a mental health liaison last year to help police handle these issues and use preventative measures to keep the mentally ill out of jail.
Twenty sites will be selected to receive the grant from the MacArthur Foundation. If selected, Tarrant County will initially receive $150,000 in the first phase to plan the jail reforms.
The second phase of funding could provide up to $2 million to support implementation.
Ali Montag is the education and community editor for The 109.  Email her at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @ali_montag.