Jail Numbers Down ... for Now

As Austin grows, jail population could inch upward

Travis County has seen a dramatic drop in its jail population, following a national trend showing local jail populations dropping over the last year for the first time in more than a decade, according to stats released last week by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. Overall, the BJS reports, the local jail population nationwide was down 2.3%, for a total of 767,620 inmates held as of midyear 2009. Since 2000, the jail population has increased by about 3% each year.

From mid-2007 to 2009, Austin's local jail population declined a whopping 16.7%. As of last summer, the average daily jail population was down to 2,459 inmates, and the county's jail occupancy rate declined to 82% last year – no small feat for a county jail system that has struggled in the past with overcrowding.

Why the decrease? Likely a combination of factors, says Travis County Sheriff's Office spokesman Roger Wade. Local jail diversion programs have played a part, as has the Texas Department of Criminal Justice moving more quickly to transfer prisoners from county jail to state prison after sentences have been meted out. "All that combined to help reduce the population," says Wade.

Still, he notes that already the jail has seen an upswing in numbers since last summer. Bookings have steadily increased, he says. General population increase could be one reason. With current arrest numbers up, Wade also predicts jail population numbers will increase in the future.

Indeed, crime did increase in Austin in 2009, despite a decline nationwide, according to the FBI's latest crime stats released in late May. According to the annual preliminary uniform crime report, violent crime in the U.S. dropped 5.5% in 2009, while property crimes decreased 4.9%. Unfortunately, in Austin both categories nosed upward: violent crime was up 2.3% (led by increases in aggravated assault and robbery), while property crimes (led by theft and burglary) rose 7.2%. The FBI also reports that while arson declined 10.4% nationally last year, arson reports in Austin were up 10.3%, from 87 reports in 2008 to 96 last year.

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