Rising inmate population could mean new jail

Hays County's 26-year-old jail is nearing the end of its useful life, officials have said, and a possible bond election to construct a new facility or add to the existing jail could be on the horizon.

The county has been having discussions about a new jail since the late 2000s, but back then the jail was unkempt. It failed two inspections by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in 2009, and its population was mostly made up of those who had committed misdemeanor crimes such as possession of small amounts of marijuana or theft of goods valued at less than $50.

Things are changing though, Hays County Corrections Bureau Capt. Mark Cumberland said.

"The difference is two or three years ago we would have had a higher population of misdemeanor people and a lower count of felonies," Cumberland said.

The number of misdemeanants and felons being held in the jail is nearing a 50-50 balance, he said. Because felons are typically held longer than misdemeanants, this has caused a steady increase in the jail population.

As part of an attempt to study the inmate population, officials have taken a snapshot of the jail population on Feb. 19 for the past four years. On Feb. 19, 2010, the jail housed about 80 felons. On Feb. 19, 2014, that number had climbed to 158. Cumberland said the increase was a steady year-over-year climb.

Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley said county officials will most likely begin discussing options for the jail during the fiscal year 2015 budgeting process, which will begin this summer. Conley said if county officials decide to expand the existing facility or build an entirely new one, the construction will be funded through a bond.

Fighting the increase

Since discussions about a new jail began in the late 2000s, the county's population has increased each year, but the jail's population has remained relatively stable during that period, mostly because of a series of initiatives set in place by the sheriff's office.

A system of work credits has been created to allow inmates who contribute to the upkeep of the jail and participate in trash cleanups on county roads to reduce their sentences. An inmate who spends 24 hours in the jail could earn up to three days of time served if he or she also worked and showed good behavior on that day.

Additionally, police chiefs in Kyle, Buda and San Marcos have been given the option to write citations for certain misdemeanors that once required offenders to be taken to the jail for processing. Those who receive citations are made to appear in court at a later date for sentencing that could include jail time. In 2013, law enforcement officials issued 103 citations for offenses ranging from possession of less than 4 ounces of marijuana to theft of items valued at less than $500.

"That's 103 people who don't come into jail for a long stay or an overnight stay," Cumberland said. "That helps, when we get the cooperation of the other law enforcement entities."

When Sheriff Gary Cutler won election to his current position in November 2010, the county was spending hundreds of thousands of dollars outsourcing inmates to Guadalupe County. Between 2009 and 2010, the county spent $954,350 outsourcing prisoners to Guadalupe County. That number was reduced to $135,500 in 2011 and to $0 in 2012, where it has remained ever since.

Eliminating costly outsourcing has been a point of pride for Cutler, but the possibility remains that the county may be forced to outsource some prisoners during emergency situations. Cutler said it costs the county $50 per day to house one prisoner in Guadalupe County, and that number does not include fuel and staff costs.

"Our inmate count has been creeping up and staying up," Cutler said. "Now we're starting to see the numbers consistently stay up, and that's a red flag to us that we might have to consider some different alternatives for how to house these inmates."

The effect of growth

Cumberland and Lt. John Saenz attribute the uptick in felony arrests to a statistical inevitability: As more people move to the county and pass through on commutes to work, school and home, increased crime levels are bound to follow.

The county jail serves the sheriff's office, police departments in San Marcos, Kyle and Buda as well as the Texas State University Police Department, the Department of Public Safety, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the U.S. Marshals Service, Texas Rangers and more.

Kyle Police Chief Jeff Barnett said when areas that were recently rural are developed, spikes in crime are not unusual.

"That is probably because when you have more value in the community, it lends itself to crimes of higher value," he said. "You look at somewhere that was a vacant lot five years ago and build 50 homes and bring in the residents, their cars, their stereos, their computers—now you have property and things of value in the community."

Jail study

According to a 2013 study by the TCJS, the county jail, which currently contains 362 beds, could exceed capacity by 2015. The study examined two possible growth rates for the county. Under Scenario 1, the county will need 672 beds at its jail by 2033. Under the more aggressive scenario 2, the county will need 960 beds by 2033.

Conley said the county has determined the jail—whether expanded or rebuilt—will remain at the current site, 1307 Uhland Road, San Marcos. County commissioners are considering repurposing the county law enforcement center directly adjacent to the current jail in order to house a colocated emergency dispatch center. The law enforcement center could then be moved closer to the Hays County Government Center at 712 S. Stagecoach Road, San Marcos.

In addition to a new or expanded jail, the county has other items on its wish list, including a colocated emergency communications facility that would house emergency services dispatchers throughout the county under one roof, with the hope of improving response times. Conley said a bond for a new jail could potentially include money for the colocated center.

Conley said collaboration among the commissioners, the district attorney's office, sheriff's office and local police departments has led to a more efficient system, but growth is beginning to outpace those entities' efforts.

"Now we're down to the [inmates] that are probably going to be there a while, and of course it is not an option to let them out," Conley said.
By Brett Thorne
Brett Thorne reported on education, business, economic development and city government in San Marcos, Kyle and Buda from 2012 to 2017. Thorne attended Texas State University in San Marcos, where he graduated in 2010. He joined Community Impact Newspaper as a reporter in 2012 and was promoted to editor in 2013.


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