MISLEADING MUNICIPAL JAIL DEATH STATISTICS?
In the previous issue of the Legislative Update, the League reported on a hearing of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice regarding municipal jail standards. The committee has been charged to:
Study and make recommendations related to municipal jails and other detention facilities that operate without state agency oversight. Identify the number of such facilities and the population detained, as well as best practices for municipal jails. Make recommendations to improve services and consider options for oversight of facilities by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
At the hearing, a staff member of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (a state agency) testified that the commission has oversight of county jails, but not of city jails. Various public officials, including one city official, testified in support of granting the state the power to regulate city jails and/or jailers. Since 2005, 66 people have died in city jails. Many of those deaths – twenty-seven or 40 percent, to be exact – were attributable to suicide. What about county and state jails that are regulated by the state? In county jails, 528 people died in the same period. In the state prison system, 749 died. Of those deaths, 24 percent and 20 percent respectively were attributed to suicide.
Given the difference in the nature of city jails versus county jails and state penitentiaries – namely that city jails often hold those who have come directly from the streets and may be in an agitated or intoxicated state – it is not surprising that suicides in municipal jails are higher than those in other jails. The statistics would seem to show that state regulation doesn’t eliminate that problem.
Testimony at the recent hearing, and recent media reports, seem to miss the mark completely. One article noted that “while county jails answer to the [Texas] Commission on Jail Standards and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is responsible for state prisons, city jails are accountable to no higher authority…they remain unmonitored.” (Emphasis added.) In fact, city jails are “regulated.” They are regulated by the city staff who oversee them, and they are ultimately regulated by each city’s council.
That is why the TML membership recently recommended that TML oppose legislation that would “mandate jail standards for city jails or mandate any form of certification for city detention officers”; not because of a lack of concern for detainees, but because more bureaucracy that costs cities more money isn’t necessarily the answer.