When it comes to punishing non-violent misdemeanor offenders, our county has a few different options. We can put people in jail. This of course, costs us money. McLennan County taxpayers shell out about $55 per day, per inmate currently. Another option is to place a person on probation. People on probation generally pay fines and fees, but those moneys are in large part going to pay for actual costs incurred by a probation department...labor, programs, classes, etc. Still another option is fines. Yep, fines. Money coming into the county.
While certainly there are some instances where jail and/or supervision is required, the Penal Code is very clear that simply fining an individual is sufficient in some cases. However, in a decade of practicing criminal defense in McLennan County, we have never seen a Class B or Class A misdemeanor case where the plea bargain was to pay fine only. Why is that? What is it about our mindset in McLennan County that fines just aren't tough/mean/harsh enough? We have had clients in Bell, Falls, Bosque and Hill County accept plea deals of fine only plenty of times. And keep in mind, the amount of cases that I have handled in all those counties combined may rise as high as 5% of my caseload.
Are we saying that we should do away with jail and supervision all together? Of course not. If a person gets convicted of DWI for the first time at 22 years old, he should definitely be put on a a probation to be supervised. Logic tells us that he doesn't have enough of a track record that he can be trusted. We need to keep an eye on him for a little while. But if a person gets that same first-time conviction for DWI at age 48, then the prospect of a probation is pure silliness. This is not a person who needs to be watched or taught what do to. He knows what to do. That's why he has a clean record up until age 48. He knows better, but he screwed up. Hit him with a fine big enough to (1) "hurt" him a little, thereby creating some introspection and (2) bring in a little cash to the county. However, prosecutors and judges currently paint these two very different situations with the exact same brush; 15-18 months of probation.
Likewise, there are some repeat or violent offenders who manifest a great deal of contempt/disrespect for the law and the only way to get their attention is through the loss of their freedom. They need to be locked up in jail for a bit. But these people are a small percentage of the population, an aberration. There are far too many people who do not fit this description in our jail right now, separated from their families, costing us taxpayers a small fortune. In fact, there are people every week in this county being sentenced up to 120-150 days for Driving While License Invalid. Do the math...how do you feel, McLennan County Taxpayer, about paying $7,000 to lock up a person for driving to work while his license was suspended? Not so good? But prosecutors defend this practice by explaining that this person has a 15 year old felony drug conviction. Feel any better about it? Yeah, neither do we.
Oh, and it gets worse if you look at our policy for collecting court costs from county jail inmates. Instead of releasing inmates at the end of their sentence and requiring that they pay into the county coffers for their court costs, our default practice is that we actually hold them in jail longer to "pay for" their court costs by crediting them $50 per day. Did you get that?
I'll give you an example...let's say a person owes the county $300 at the end of their jail sentence for court costs. We don't release them and give them the opportunity to pay us. We don't even let them out and call it even. No, we pay $55 per day to hold them in for 6 extra days, while crediting them $50 per day. Genius. These numbers may not sound like a lot, but when you understand the volume of people who are in and out of our jails' doors every day, you will see that it adds up quickly.
We're not advocating that we simply let the proverbial "bottom line" dictate our criminal justice decisions. We recognize that enforcement of our laws and the concomitant maintenance of our safety contains issues that more complex than a simple price tag. However, we in McLennan County are so far off course from what is pragmatic or sensible that just a little consideration of how we are blowing through the county's resources might not be such a bad thing.