Nueces County, Texas
Officials in Nueces County, Texas, had a choice to make: With an inmate population that exceeded the county jail’s capacity, the local government could spend millions of dollars to build a new jail, or it could extend a contract for additional jail space. It chose neither option, deciding instead to follow a proposal that would reduce the number of inmates and save the county more than $300,000 annually.
Situated in southeast Texas, Nueces County is seated in Corpus Christi and is home to 313,650 residents. In the last five years, the county’s population has grown an average of 2 percent annually, but, this year, it was the inmate population that grabbed the local officials’ attention.
The Nueces County Jail houses 972 inmates. By September 2002, inmates outnumbered beds, forcing the county to contract with neighboring Brooks County for additional jail space. Paying for an average of 40 inmates a day, the county’s annual costs for contract housing would reach $496,000.
A two-year rise in gang-related crimes contributed to the growing inmate population. At the same time, the county lacked a systematic method for moving criminal cases through the courts.
The backlog of cases — including gang-related crimes and other felonies — swelled, and the county’s 16 prosecutors were not enough to make a dent in it. By January 2003, more than half of the county’s inmates were being held on felony charges, unable to post bond and awaiting trial.
Recognizing the need to reduce the number of pretrial inmates, County Judge Terry Shamsie set out to streamline adjudication. He convened a series of meetings with representatives of the Sheriff’s Office, Police Department, District Attorney’s Office and District Clerk’s Office, and the group implemented several measures for minimizing trial delays. Shamsie also suggested that, by hiring additional prosecutors and assigning them solely to jailed defendants, the county could reduce its backlog of cases substantially.
The county did just that. Using funds confiscated in drug busts, it staffed and equipped a new “jail docket” department. It hired six attorneys and transferred a district clerk to the new team, and it scheduled monthly court dockets devoted specifically to felony cases involving jailed defendants.
On Feb. 10, a visiting judge heard the first of the jail dockets, comprising 99 defendants. He disposed of 90 cases the first day and resolved the remaining cases within a week. Half of the defendants were freed on probation or dismissed, while the other half were convicted and remanded to state custody.
The once-a-month jail dockets continued until July, when the county transferred the jail cases to the county and district courtrooms. The cases are now heard throughout each month, and the jail docket attorneys are assigned to specific courtrooms. By pairing each attorney with an individual judge, the county ensures that the jail cases continue to move quickly.
As a result of the jail docket program, the county’s pre-trial felon population has fallen 50 percent, and the average stay in jail has dropped from 70 days to 45 days. Today, the inmate population ranges from 83 percent to 90 percent of jail capacity.
Consequently, the county has eliminated contract housing and reduced annual costs for guard overtime and inmate meals by $170,000. Furthermore, it has increased the number of federal prisoners it houses, generating up to $180,000 in revenue annually.
Costs for the 2003 jail docket program — including materials, equipment, and staff salaries and benefits for eight months — totaled approximately $260,000. For fiscal year 2004, which began Oct. 1, the program will cost the county approximately $350,000.
Agencies/companies involved: Nueces County District Attorney’s Office, Nueces County Sheriff’s Office, Robstown (Texas) Constable Precinct No. 5