Is Fort Worth too tough on traffic offenders?

Posted Saturday, Jun. 15, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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The cost of incarceration Various factors determine jail costs for municipalities, including booking charges, daily housing rates, municipal court activity, infrastructure, and contracts between cities and counties. Fort Worth processes 38,500 inmates at two facilities. But its per-inmate cost to incarcerate 24,000 inmates a year at the Mansfield Jail is more than what many other cities pay overall. The 2012-13 figures are estimates, and costs are not computed exactly the same way in each city. Arlington: $3,400,000, 19,557 inmates — $173.85 per inmate Austin: $6,118,171,* 45,000 inmates — $135.96 per inmate Bedford: $841,226, 6,084** — $138.27 per inmate Euless: $1,509,400, 9,624 — $156.84 per inmate Fort Worth: $5,961,035, 24,000 — $248.38 per inmate Houston: $23,536,899,*** 109,430 — $215.08 per inmate Hurst: $438,000, 3,300 — $132.73 per inmate Source: City and county estimates * Most of the costs are for booking charges at the county jail. ** Figure includes 3,283 Immigration and Customs Enforcement prisoners. *** Houston’s bookings are the fourth-largest in the U.S. The jail division employs almost 300 staffers in two decentralized facilities, including one that was built in the 1950s. Actual costs for the jail division do not reflect the cost of utilities. In Houston, jail facilities are inside a multifunction complex, so utility costs are hard to compute, officials said.
A closer look Fort Worth jail costs are an enigma because the city doesn’t keep track of all the expenses associated with its jail division. The city, for example, could not specify how much it pays to John Peter Smith Hospital to treat inmates. Nor could it provide the cost of transportation to Mansfield for detectives who need to interrogate inmates. Mansfield contract: $5,961,035 Belknap Street staffing: $1,160,920 Hospital guard contract: $145,000* Miscellaneous expenses: $101,407 * The city pays a separate company to transport inmates to the hospital. Mansfield stopped providing the service a few years ago. Source: City of Fort Worth
Moving through the jails • Every person arrested by the Fort Worth Police Department is admitted and arraigned at the intake facility on Belknap Street. • Those charged only with a Class C misdemeanor in Fort Worth are released from Belknap, except those arrested on capias warrants issued when a defendant has failed to honor a payment agreement. • All others are taken to the Mansfield Jail, including defendants arrested on capias warrants. • Inmates at the Mansfield center are transferred to the Tarrant County Jail when the Tarrant County district attorney’s office formally charges them with a Class B misdemeanor or higher. Sources: Tarrant County, Fort Worth

Should Fort Worth lighten up on traffic offenders?

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After being arrested by Fort Worth police for unpaid traffic tickets, Tina Komlenic said, she was confined for 10 days on a filthy mattress in a cramped Mansfield Jail cell with four other women.

She ate in the cell, slept there and shared a toilet. She was rarely allowed to take showers or change clothes, she said.

“I try not to think about it too much,” said Komlenic, who lives with her mother in White Settlement.

The 32-year-old single mother said she was incarcerated because she couldn’t pay almost $3,400 in fines for traffic violations, including speeding and having an expired car registration.

Every year, Fort Worth locks up thousands of people who fail to pay traffic fines.

They face an ultimatum: Pay the full fine or do your time in jail.

In a state where criminal justice experts typically see traffic offenders as a drain on jail budgets, Fort Worth’s practice is unusual, critics say.

Many other cities cut deals with cash-strapped offenders, reducing fines and letting them get out of jail as soon as possible, according to law enforcement officials and municipal judges.

“It’s costly to the taxpayer to just have these people sit,” Tarrant County Sheriff Dee Anderson said. “You are treading closely to having a debtors’ prison by holding people for money they don’t have.”

Anderson is among a handful of officials criticizing Fort Worth’s handling of nonviolent offenders.

Besides the stay-until-you-pay policy, the city has for years bypassed the nearby county facilities in favor of the Mansfield Jail, spending millions to send those prisoners some 20 miles from downtown. The practice has increased travel time and costs for police, attorneys and relatives.

Questions have also been raised about the conditions that greet nonviolent offenders.

City and police officials have openly criticized the rising costs of the Mansfield Jail as city budgets are cut and projects such as road repairs are delayed.

“It seems foolish to me that we were paying that kind of money and transporting prisoners all the way to Mansfield,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said. “We are taking a hard look at this.”

A Star-Telegram examination of jail costs for several cities and counties found that Fort Worth has the highest cost per inmate.

The city incarcerates about 24,000 inmates in Mansfield a year on a $5.96 million contract, for a cost of $248 per inmate. Other cities pay as little as $133 per inmate, according to data provided by the municipalities.

And there are additional costs, some of which the city can’t pin down.

The cost of the annual contract with Mansfield automatically increases by 4 percent a year. The contract covers some 24,000 inmates who are transported to Mansfield from downtown.

The city spends at least $1.2 million more on salaries for police officers and Breathalyzer operators at a separate intake facility at police headquarters on Belknap Street. That facility handles an additional 14,500 people who are released after they have seen a municipal judge.

Fort Worth’s approach is not a typical way to control costs, said Steve Westbrook, executive director of the Sheriffs’ Association of Texas.

“Most counties, when they contract with a neighboring county or city, it’s a per-head” charge, Westbrook said. “Same thing with federal prisoners. Everybody charges per head. It’s not a flat thing.”

In many cases, the city can’t say how much it spends on a few related jail costs, such as transportation for detectives to interrogate suspects and medical care for inmates at John Peter Smith Hospital. Its total jail budget reflects contract costs and excludes some expenses associated with operating the Belknap Street intake facility, such as utilities.

Price said the contract with Mansfield has just gotten “too expensive.” She hopes the city can cut a deal with Tarrant County for jail services. The two parties are in contract negotiations.

“Bottom line, we have to figure out the best financial deal,” Price said.

Mansfield Chief Marshal Tracy Aaron hopes Fort Worth decides to stay with Mansfield. He said he has tried to work with the city to save money.

Mansfield, for example, provides the van transport at Belknap Street to and from its jail.

Some inmates are shipped back to Fort Worth so detectives don’t have to travel to Mansfield to interrogate all of them, Aaron said. That is at a cost to Mansfield.

“It’s a service we are happy to provide,” he said.

‘Absolutely shocking’

After spending 10 days in jail, Komlenic had her fine wiped out — meaning she was credited $338.45 per day in jail, court records show.

But she said the judge didn’t give her the option of negotiating her fine down to what she could afford.

“If I could’ve gotten out of there quicker, I would have,” Komlenic said.

Last year, 3,800 people who, like Komlenic, had repeatedly failed to pay traffic fines faced the tougher option in Fort Worth: Pay your entire fine or serve your entire sentence in jail.

On some days, inmates locked up for unpaid tickets make up as many as 1 in 5 of those jailed in Mansfield.

“It’s just absolutely shocking to us,” said Mike Brickner, director of public policy at the American Civil Liberties Union, Ohio chapter, which conducted a yearlong study of how local courts jail people for failure to pay fines.

“When you hear about this, it sounds like Charles Dickens.”

Fort Worth municipal judges say Mansfield requires inmates to pay their full fine before being released. But Aaron said he has nothing to do with the length of jail stays.

“It’s a Fort Worth inmate,” he said. “Mansfield does not have a policy that says you have to stay or pay your fine. … Keep in mind, we do take the fines for Fort Worth and send them the money, but at the end of the day, it’s 100 percent Fort Worth’s inmate.”

Many other Texas cities work with traffic offenders to pay down their fines because it’s cheaper to get some money out of them than to keep them in jail.

Houston, whose jail holds more than 109,000 inmates a year, will explore other options, an official there said.

Houston, like Hurst, Euless and Arlington, reduces jail time by whittling down big fines with credits. For example, if you owe $1,000 in traffic tickets, you could pay half and get out of jail early. Credits for good behavior, work detail and community service could further reduce the time, several city jail officials said.

“Any moment that you come up with the money, you leave,” one official said. “You should get credit for the time you spend in jail.”

Anderson, who is negotiating a contract to move Fort Worth prisoners to the county facilities, said he would not incarcerate defendants like Komlenic for days. Rather, he would release them as soon as he could work out a deal to resolve the fines.

Fort Worth housed inmates at the county jail until 2001, when it signed on with Mansfield. Under its contract with the county, municipal judges in Fort Worth decided whether offenders could be released early.

Anderson said that years ago, some people spent months in his jail because they owed tens of thousands on tickets.

Never again, he said.

“I will never sign another contract where I can’t control Class C misdemeanor offenders and the [municipal] judge has all the power,” he said.

Anderson’s stance was also contentious in 2006 when city and county officials tried to hammer out an agreement.

The right move?

Under the contract in place, October 2014 would be the earliest that Fort Worth inmates could be moved to Tarrant County.

The final decision rests with the City Council after recommendations from the Police Department, the Municipal Court and other staff.

Price said the move makes sense.

“We all pay county taxes anyway for the jail, so it’s much easier for families if people are closer,” she said. “It’s easier for attorneys, bail bondsmen — everybody.”

Because county jails have oversight, taxpayers can better judge the conditions for prisoners. At the county, Komlenic would have slept in a bunk bed, gotten three hot meals a day and had a shower at least every other day.

“Lots of people in Mansfield say they’d rather be at the county,” Komlenic said.

Fort Worth Deputy Police Chief Abdul Pridgen acknowledged that many hours can pass before inmates arrive at their cells in Mansfield because of the 21-mile ride and the wait for the transport van.

Komlenic said she was booked at the Police Department’s intake facility on Belknap, then taken to Mansfield by van. That, in itself, took six hours, she said.

Once in Mansfield, she spent hours in a cold, gnat-infested holding tank with feces on the floor and walls, she said. She was told that blankets were not available. Then she was placed in a permanent cell on a floor mattress with four other women.

It’s also not unusual for families to wait hours to bail out a loved one, Pridgen said.

But he said he has not heard complaints about conditions.

“It’s not a Taj Mahal or a Marriott, but we do expect them to be treated properly,” Pridgen said. “But from what we’ve seen, Mansfield has met that. If we’ve ever had an issue, they’ve been incredibly responsive.”

Aaron said he has heard complaints that his jail needs to be cleaner. He said some dirt may accumulate from inmates eating in their cells. But, he said, “the officers are constantly cleaning.”

Every day, a Tarrant County van transports 20 to 50 prisoners from Mansfield. They are moved to the county once they are formally charged with a Class B misdemeanor or higher.

Anderson said that the Mansfield inmates arrive unclean and hungry and that many lack proper medical attention. Diabetics have been missing their medications, for example, he said.

“They come here, and their complaints are valid,” Anderson said.

Yamil Berard, 817-390-7705 Twitter: @yberard

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