Alleviating the Jail Squeeze

County Attorney Ken Oden has proposed a possible solution to the chronic overcrowding that has long plagued Travis Co. jails.

Travis Co. Attorney Ken Oden has proposed a possible solution to the chronic overcrowding that has long plagued Travis Co. jails. By taking people accused of Class C misdemeanors (for instance, outstanding warrants for traffic violations) directly to court instead of directly to jail, Oden and jail officials say, the county could reduce the population at the Central Booking facility by at least 1,000 inmates per month. Travis Co. Sheriff's Office spokesman Roger Wade estimates this measure would reduce the number of inmates by nearly half; In May, the average daily number of inmates was 2,793, of which 1,300 were in on Class C misdemeanor charges.

The county has failed its last four surprise inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, most consistently for overcrowding, and most seriously at the Central Booking facility. The Commission has told the county to either shape up or face one of two (likely unpopular) prospects: Ship inmates to other counties to be housed, or build yet another jail.

Oden admits that his idea originated with the County's magistrate judges and justices of the peace, who over the past few months have been working until nearly 1am nightly at Central Booking on a sort of self-initiated pilot project. "I had this proposal, and was calling around to the various levels of judges asking them about this," Oden said. Moving the Class C misdemeanor violators could be the first step in "retooling the ancient way of doing things," he added, making the system more responsive and streamlined without costing the county any additional money.

Convictions for Class C misdemeanors do not include any jail time, and are punishable by fines up to only $500, so why are Class C perps in jail in the first place? "The ancient reason," Oden says, "is because if you got a ticket and didn't show up to your court date, and you got picked up again, [being put in jail] was the punishment." This has done little to encourage people to show up in the courtroom, a problem that taking people directly to the bench would likely solve.

Oden's proposal is the first of several he plans to announce in the coming weeks "designed to reinvent the incarceration system here and to insure it's as efficient as it can be." Meanwhile, the TCSO, the Austin Police Dept., and other city law enforcement agencies are in the process of reviewing the Class C suggestion.

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Ken Oden, Travis Co. jails, class C misdemeanors, Travis County Sheriff's Office, Roger Wade, Texas Commission on Jail Standards

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