County Jail: Not So Bad

After a decade of violating rules imposed by the regulatory Texas Commission on Jail Standards, Travis County's jail system is finally in compliance. But will the good times last? Travis Co. Sheriff Margo Frasier seems confident the days of overcrowding and understaffing are over; at a Monday press conference held at the Travis Co. Jail, she showed off a certificate awarded by the Commission and smiled. "It's a statement by Texas that it's a safe jail system," Frasier said, noting that the Commission enforces hundreds of requirements regarding safety, inmate welfare, and operations. "Following the state's requirements isn't easy."

During a surprise May 2001 inspection, the Commission cited 25 violations in Travis County's three jail facilities -- more than in any other county. Last January, that number had fallen to eight, but the state threatened to sue the county for not meeting the proper officer-to-inmate ratio. For several months the county had to send around 100 inmates a day to Limestone County, over 100 miles away, at $40 a day per inmate.

But after hiring more corrections officers and diverting traffic tickets and other Class C misdemeanors to a magistrate, Frasier -- who ran the jail before being elected sheriff -- has brought the average daily inmate population down from 2,800 a year ago to around 2,600. Offenders accused of state-jail felonies such as drug possession are being sent to court in two weeks instead of waiting a month or more, said Frasier. "Inmates get to find out what happens to them faster," she said, adding that under the program, begun last week, attorneys are now appointed to clients much sooner than in the past.

Frasier says this new "rocket docket" program will be evaluated in the next few weeks. Meanwhile, challenges lie ahead: As the largest mental health provider in the county, the county jail system still must contend with the constant bed shortages at the state hospital and the MHMR facility. And though a sobriety center is under discussion, Frasier says public intoxication cases still will be processed through central booking. If the jail population spikes again, the County has maintained its contract with Limestone County. Of course, Frasier points out, inmates normally prefer to stay in Austin, near their families.

While Frasier remains hopeful that the jails won't fill to overflowing again, other sheriff's department officials advocate building another jail -- an idea that TCJS Executive Director Terry Julian admits the county may have to consider. "I think what they're doing is the best they can do right now," he says.

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