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Fort Worth has spent millions for jail services through the years. Was it necessary?

On Jan. 29, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office joined Texas' 253 other counties and opened its cell doors to hold everyone accused of Class B misdemeanors or higher after probable cause for the arrest is determined.
On Jan. 29, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office joined Texas' 253 other counties and opened its cell doors to hold everyone accused of Class B misdemeanors or higher after probable cause for the arrest is determined.

A year after being sworn in, Tarrant County Sheriff Bill Waybourn has ended a more than 40-year custom of housing prisoners that has cost Fort Worth more than $80 million and untold dollars for other cities.

Fort Worth and other Tarrant County cities have long footed the bill or paid others to house inmates prior to their charges being accepted by the Tarrant County district attorney’s office, despite a 53-year-old law that tasks all Texas counties with that responsibility.

So on Jan. 29, the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office joined Texas' 253 other counties and opened its cell doors to hold everyone accused of Class B misdemeanors or higher after probable cause for the arrest is determined.

Here’s the kicker: There’s no charge to Fort Worth or other Tarrant County cities.

“There’s no additional cost that we’re charging the cities to take these prisoners because we’re following the law,” said David McClelland, Waybourn's chief of staff. "I can't speak to why previous sheriffs haven't followed this law."

The law, on the books since 1965, is Article 2.18 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which states, "when a prisoner is committed to jail by warrant from a magistrate or court, he shall be placed in jail by the sheriff.”

For many years Fort Worth had housed its inmates at the county jail at no charge. But in the mid-1980s, the county started charging the city. When that annual cost was going to balloon to nearly $9 million in 2001, the city took its jail business to Mansfield.

McClelland said Waybourn, as Dalworthington Gardens' police chief before becoming sheriff in January 2017, had dealt first-hand with the hassles of Tarrant County not following Article 2.18.

“It was something that he wanted to change when he came into office,” McClelland said. “It took a little time to figure out the logistics and to get a go-date. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”

A 'local legal custom'

So if it's the law, why wasn't Tarrant County doing it before?

Historically, some say for more than 40 years, Tarrant County had been interpreting the law differently, choosing to follow a "local legal custom" rather than the law, county officials said.

"Historically Tarrant County and its municipalities have worked in partnership when dealing with persons arrested by municipal police agencies," G.K. Maenius, Tarrant County administrator, said in a statement Friday. "Former district attorneys and sheriffs had created a system whereby city prisoners would be transported to County jail facilities after charges had been filed by the DA’s Office."

Maenius said "the full financial impact of this new approach has not yet been determined."

Said McClelland, "Keep in mind, we were the only country that was not doing this in the state of Texas."

Tarrant County District Attorney Sharen Wilson praised Waybourn for the change.

"Many years ago, a decision was made by County officials, the then-DA, and then-sheriff not to accept prisoners in the county jail until after cases were already filed," Wilson said in a statement released Friday.

"I commend Sheriff Waybourn for discontinuing this local legal custom and following the legal statute on this matter of custody," she said, adding, "Our office also fulfills our legal obligation by filing criminal cases without regard to custody status of the person charged.”

But don't think for a moment that Fort Worth wasn't aware of the law.

Over the years, Fort Worth has considered suing the county over the issue, but never followed through, said Gerald Pruitt, a deputy city attorney. He also gives Waybourn credit for making the change.

"We certainly looked at that issue," Pruitt said. "I can't tell you there was ever a 'should we.' We certainly told the district attorney and the sheriff we could (sue), but it never happened. Cities in Tarrant County tend to not be horribly litigious with each other. This is more of a get-along kind of place."

A new magistrate system

Under the change, persons arrested in a Tarrant County city are first brought before a city magistrate, who will determine if there was probable cause for their arrest. Once that's been determined, the law enforcement agency can then immediately bring the inmate to the Tarrant County jail or have the sheriff's office pick up the inmate.

Once in the Tarrant County jail, inmates will go through a screening process and appear before a county magistrate, who will then set bond.

"That has led to a majority of prisoners now being given their warnings and having their bond set by the county magistrates and not municipal magistrates," McClelland said.

The centralized magistrate system was implemented by the county in recent months largely due to recent federal lawsuits filed in Harris and Dallas counties. In the lawsuits, poor inmates claim that the bail system discriminates against them, keeping them stuck in jail while others charged with similar crimes are released simply because they have money to post bond.

On Wednesday, the Fifth Circuit Appeals Court in New Orleans ruled in the Harris County case that the way bonds were being set there are unconstitutional. That ruling will likely set precedent in North Texas.

Under the new centralized system in Tarrant County, county magistrates now determine a person's bond based on risk, financial assessments and a person's history of appearing in court — not based on recommended guidelines.

"There's this basic confusion out in the public that bond is some type of punishment for a crime," said Gregory Shugart, Tarrant County Court administrator. "All it really is is, Are you going to show up to court or not?"

'Better control of jail population'

So far, McClelland said there has not been a large increase in the jail population because the new process for appearing before magistrates is quickening the time that inmates are being released on bond. On a recent day, the jail booked in 162 people and let 179 people out, he said.

"We had a little spike when we first started two weeks ago, but it's started to level out at this point," McClelland said. "You've got to think there was an extra 100 and something prisoners sitting in city jails all across Tarrant County that were eligible to come over immediately. Originally, when we started, there was backlog because of the influx of people but the process streamlined and got smoother. We have minimized any type of backlog drastically."

Tarrant County jails can hold up to 5,002 people. Daily populations, McClelland said, are now hovering around 3,800 to 3,900 inmates. Average cost per inmate is about $113 a day, he said.

County officials also tout that by bringing in inmates in earlier, they get quicker access to pre-trial and MHMR services.

"We're going to have better control of our jail population and actually we’ll have a bigger and better opportunity to divert people from jail rather than keeping them in jail," Waybourn told the Commissioner's Court in November in outlining the change. "That's the bottom line, because we have the services and the abilities that municipalities don’t have."

The sheriff's office hasn't asked for additional funding to pay for the recent change, but there has been some associated costs incurred by Tarrant County.

In January, Tarrant County hired two full-time magistrates and two screening officers at an annual cost of more than $500,000. The county already had four full-time and one part-time magistrate.

”We were doing about 724 hours of magistration a year," Shugart said. "We have now dedicated over 5,000 hours of magistration time."

Shugart said about 80 percent of Tarrant County's cities are now using the county's centralized magistrate system.

Some cities, like North Richland Hills, are still using their city magistrates to set bonds. Shugart said the county plans to meet with municipal judges in hopes of bringing more cities on board.

'Anticipate a much smaller contract'

Between 1985 and late 2001, Fort Worth paid Tarrant County to house arrestees before charges were filed.

But when Tarrant County wanted to move to a per-prisoner pricing, Fort Worth officials decided they could save money signing a deal to instead incarcerate their detainees in Mansfield. They signed a 5-year, $16 million contract with Mansfield.

Though Fort Worth and Tarrant County have talked throughout the years about a possible new jail deal, the talks always failed. Instead, Fort Worth continued to contract with Mansfield. In 2006, the city signed a contract with Mansfield for annual jail services for 10 years. In the end, the contract cost the city about $50 million.

In 2016, Fort Worth signed a one-year contract for just under $7 million. And in September, the council approved paying Mansfield more than $7.4 million for one year of detention and related services. The money is paid out of the Crime Control and Prevention District budget.

Under the recent change made by the Sheriff's Office, Mansfield is still processing detainees for Fort Worth at the city's holding facility at 350 W. Belknap Street, but only houses offenders accused of Class C misdemeanors at the Mansfield jail.

Pruitt said Fort Worth is still obligated to pay Mansfield, but plans to review the contract under the changes.

He said Fort Worth is now looking at the savings it will gain from the change, not only in what it could pay Mansfield but also in not being required to have as many magistrates. Pruitt said the city doesn't yet have its hands around the impact.

“This is going to have a significant effect on a number of aspects of our holding facility,” Pruitt said. "We anticipate a much smaller contract. We'll see how this evolves.”

City Manager David Cooke told the City Council at its recent retreat that the budget savings won’t happen until 2019.

“With this new magistration with the county ... we are expecting the jail contract to go down,” Cooke said.

'We haven't lost anything'

Sgt. Michael Midkiff, a spokesman for Mansfield police, said while the agency is housing fewer arrestees from Fort Worth, the Mansfield jail is still in contracts to house arrestees from Burleson and Kennedale, as well as some federal inmates.

"We haven't lost anything. We still have the contracts with Burleson, Kennedale, still have federal contracts," he said.

He said the agency could explore housing additional inmates from other federal sources to offset any loss of Fort Worth inmates.

Some of the smaller cities don't think the change will help or hurt them.

Hillary Wreay, Colleyville's interim assistant police chief, said Colleyville will continue to pay Keller for jail services. Keller expanded its jail in 2014 to house inmates from Colleyville, Keller, Southlake and Westlake.

"We're still doing the same thing we've always done," Wreay said. "We're still using them the same way we are. We don't have the manpower to drive to Tarrant County to drop prisoners off."

In 2011, North Richland Hills consolidated jail services with Watauga, Haltom City and Richland Hills.

Richland Hills Police Chief Barbara Childress said her officers will continue to transport prisoners to North Richland Hills. She said Tarrant County had been picking up prisoners about three times a week, but that will likely change to every day now.

"It's not going to be different for us," Childress said. "It's not going to impact us at all."

Carissa Katekaru, a spokesman for North Richland Hills, acknowledged that the number of prisoner pickups from the county has increased, which has affected their overall jail population.

"The protocol with the county is very new and it is too early to make any decisions or judgments as to how this will affect our jail services or any financial impact we may see," Katekaru said. "Our plan is to evaluate this over a period of time and study any impacts before making any changes to our jail operations."

Deanna Boyd: 817-390-7655, @deannaboyd

Sandra Baker: 817-390-7727, @SandraBakerFWST