The Austin Chronicle

Sheriff Hopefuls: Looking-at-Jail Time

Election 2004

By Jordan Smith, October 8, 2004, News

As election day draws nearer, Travis Co. sheriff candidates Duane McNeill and Greg Hamilton have jail on the brain – jail crowding, jail staffing, and new jail construction, that is – issues that each candidate says top the list of concerns facing the sheriff's office as they campaign to be the county's top cop.

In July, consultants with Criminal Justice Institute Inc. told Travis Co. commissioners that the county's jail population is expected to grow nearly 20% in the next 10 years. Unfortunately, the county doesn't have the infrastructure to deal with even a moderate increase. In fact, the county's jail system is already operating over capacity – a situation that has been temporarily assuaged by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards' issuing a variance allowing the jail to "create" out of the existing facilities an additional 572 beds.

Without that, the county would be facing an average daily population consistently higher than its 2,275 permanent beds. According to TCJS numbers released on Sept. 1, the jail population was 2,492 inmates, meaning that even with the temporary beds, the jail is running at nearly 88% of capacity. Since the TCJS isn't likely to allow the county's bed variance to remain in effect forever, that means the county is going to have to build a new facility where the Del Valle Correctional Complex now sits. "We can strategize all we want, but at some point we're going to have to get the ball in motion," said Republican sheriff candidate McNeill, a 24-year veteran and commander of the Austin Police Department.

McNeill points out that as the jail population has grown, the Del Valle jail has not kept up. Additional, and supposedly temporary, buildings were erected "piecemeal" to handle the additional load, but now those buildings are deteriorating under the stress of constant use. Meanwhile, the county is without any long-term solution to the problem of overcrowding. The CJI consultants estimated that a new facility could cost the county up to $260 million to build, and McNeill said it's time for the county to conduct a thorough analysis of the problem and to move forward to fix it.

"We need to look at all of the dynamics that factor in with jail overcrowding," he said – including a thorough review of population and crime trends – before moving forward with the construction of a new facility, financed outright with the issuance of bonds or more slowly through existing revenue. "How it will be funded is up to the commissioners," he said. "But it's just going to have to get done."

Democrat Hamilton agrees that jail crowding is among the top issues facing the sheriff's office. "There's no doubt in my mind, and I know the taxpayers don't want to hear it, but we need a new jail," he said. However, Hamilton says he has some ideas on how the county might be able to keep new construction costs down. First, he said, he thinks the county should go to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state prison system, to find a good, functional design for the county's new jail. "And then we can see what fits our needs," he said. And if the county could get permission to use an existing architectural plan, "that would knock out the architectural fees," he said. Additionally, he said, the sheriff will need to make sure that any plan selected will allow efficient jail staffing – the current set up at Del Valle, he said, is "manpower-intensive," which translates into a heavier hit on the TCSO budget. Second, Hamilton thinks the county could cut down on cost by buying building materials made by TDCJ inmates in the prison-industries programs. "We've got to start thinking of innovative ways to deal with our issues," he said. "Instead of reinventing the wheel, we have to look around the country at how people are handling these issues and then customize those best practices."

In addition to jail concerns, Hamilton believes that increasing morale among the sheriff's employees will be an important job for the incoming sheriff. "If we're hurting internally," he said, "we can't help the public." The TCSO has been split in a sort of sibling rivalry between its corrections and law enforcement deputies – the office's two groups of sworn employees – which has been fueled by a disparity in pay scales. The formerly united Travis Co. Sheriff's Officers Association has split into two unions – the TCSOA, representing most of the corrections officers, and the Travis Co. Sheriff's Law Enforcement Association, representing most of the law enforcement deputies. Hamilton said he'd like to bring in the third "link," the office's civilian employees, and facilitate all three groups working together for the good of the whole department. "There are a lot of people [in each group] that want to work together," he said, adding that he thinks the two unions should come together under one larger umbrella. "Together they are so much more powerful," he said.

McNeill says he supports a pay restructuring to bring TCSO salaries in line with the higher salaries paid by APD, but notes that there will still be disparities between the TCSO's corrections, law enforcement, and civilian employees. "Pay should be based on job assignment," McNeill wrote for his campaign Web site. "An area where there is a disparity is [law enforcement] commissioned personnel in corrections who are paid more than their noncommissioned co-workers but are performing the same job function. This has to change. If someone in corrections wants to utilize their commissioned status, then they can transfer to a law enforcement assignment."

Hamilton and McNeill each think they've got the leadership experience it will take to move the TCSO forward, and both have long résumés in the field. Over nearly a quarter century, McNeill has worked in assignments throughout APD and steadily rose through the ranks to become commander. He has attended five long-term management schools, he said, which have given him the tools to effectively manage personnel and budgets. "I've worked everything from A to Z," he said – from patrol to administration – giving him a "broader focus" of experience to apply to running the TCSO. McNeill points out that although Hamilton headed up law enforcement activities for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, that agency has a more "singular approach" than does working with the APD. Additionally, McNeill notes, he has seven years more law enforcement experience than does Hamilton.

Meanwhile, Hamilton worked as a TDCJ prison guard, a recreational therapist for the Austin State Hospital, and as both a law enforcement deputy and a corrections officer with the TCSO before being appointed chief of enforcement for the TABC, where he served as statewide leader for the agency. "The thing is, [McNeill] has managed a unit ... a part of [the APD]. I have not only managed, but I have led" a statewide agency, he said. "There is a difference between a manager and a leader, and the TCSO needs a leader."

So far, Hamilton has received key endorsements, including the nods of both the TCSOA and TCSLEA. Still, McNeill says he's running a grassroots campaign whose hallmark is knock-and-talk runs throughout the county. No matter what happens in November, McNeill said, the experience has been great. He's learned about areas of the county he didn't know about before, he's "met a lot of good people" he said, and has "gotten good exercise."

Duane McNeill (R)

Experience: Nearly 25 years in APD, currently holds rank of commander

Endorsements include: Former Sheriff (now state Rep.) Terry Keel; state Rep. Jack Stick; former Council Member Bob Larson. Endorsed by Austin Police Association PAC in the primary.

On the Web:

Greg Hamilton (D)

Experience: Former TCSO deputy (in both corrections and law enforcement) and enforcement chief for Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission

Endorsements include: Both TCSO officers' unions and outgoing Sheriff Margo Frasier

On the Web:

Copyright © 2021 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.