Texas Legislature Targets Dallas Jail-Dallas Morning News

Jail bill targets Dallas

Legislature: House wants staffing rules, monitors for poor performers

07:39 AM CDT on Friday, May 11, 2007
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News
kmbrooks@dallasnews.com

AUSTIN – The House delivered a sharp rebuke to Dallas County over persistent staffing, overcrowding and sanitation problems plaguing the county jail, endorsing legislation Thursday that would require strict compliance with state staffing rules and make counties pay for private jail monitors if they consistently fail inspections.

Dallas County would have to pay $2 million to hire 42 guards if the Texas Commission on Jail Standards’ requirements of one officer to every 48 inmates became law. Currently, the county has a variance that allows a higher ratio, but it is working to lower it by releasing prisoners and shifting guards.

The county’s jail system, the seventh-largest in the nation, has failed state inspections four times in a row – the latest in April – and was the main target of the legislation by Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston. The Harris County Jail has failed inspections three straight times, and 13 of 38 county jails across Texas reviewed this year were deemed substandard, lawmakers said.

“What do we need? Some correctional officer to be injured? Do we need riots in these facilities?” Mr. Turner said. “The status quo is unacceptable. … We’re just saying [to jails], ‘You need to do better and we’re going to help you do better.’ “

Michael Ortiz, a spokesman for Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez, said that officials are monitoring the legislation but that if it becomes law, “it won’t be a problem because we have already taken proactive steps so that we don’t fall behind again.”

Mr. Turner’s bill to require the independent monitor was approved on a 79-61 vote, and his measure on staffing passed 76-61. Both face final votes today in the House, and if approved, head to the Senate. Both bills’ fate there is unclear.

Some Dallas lawmakers fought the measures, saying they were either too costly or the wrong way to solve the problems the jail has been facing. And two plan to try to change the measures on today’s vote.

“No one wants to see jails that are not in compliance,” said Rep. Helen Giddings, D-Dallas. “The question is whether or not we agree in the approach to this.”

But Rep. Terri Hodge, D-Dallas, argued that the cost of the bills “would be far less than what we are paying in lawsuits right now. It’s time we do something to provide a clean and quality jail.”

Under the monitoring bill, jails that fail the inspections three times would have to have a private monitor on site for 90 days, after which the monitor – paid for by the county, along with an additional fee to the state – would report problems or progress to the county.

The bill says the monitor would “ensure” compliance, but some lawmakers wondered whether that would work, as the monitor may not have the authority to compel the jail to make changes.

Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, said that either the commission wouldn’t be able to find contractors because they could be liable for not ensuring compliance – or that the county could find itself at the other extreme.

“It would be privatizing the ultimate authority over your jail,” Mr. Branch said.

Ms. Giddings said she believed the county should be compelled to enforce standards and that bringing in a private contractor could lead to more problems because the company would have a financial incentive to find problems.

Ms. Giddings and Mr. Branch both voted for the bill anyway, saying they would work with Mr. Turner on amendments to address their concerns today.

Some lawmakers objected to the bill codifying the jail standards commission’s standards on the grounds that they are costly and, in Dallas’ case, that Sheriff Valdez is already working with the county to get into compliance.

But proponents, such as Ms. Hodge and House Corrections Chairman Jerry Madden, R-Richardson, said the dire situations at substandard jails – particularly in Dallas County – merit more than just reporting problems and waiting for inmate numbers to go down.

The most recent state inspection found problems with maintenance and sanitation. A Justice Department report in December documented numerous cases of improper medical care that contributed to the deaths and injuries of inmates.

To address staffing problems, the county recently set out to reduce the jail population by 1,000 inmates.

“We are on pace, already, to meet or exceed the required staffing for our jails,” said Mr. Ortiz, the sheriff’s spokesman. “If any other unexpected issues pop up, we are confident that together, with the help of the Dallas County Commissioners Court, we will overcome any obstacles.”

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