Tarrant County’s jail inmates are disproportionately black, and more than 40 percent are behind bars for drug and alcohol offenses, according to a recent study authorized by Tarrant County commissioners.
One-quarter of the inmates were screened for mental illness, the study found.
Commissioner Roy Brooks asked the researchers to further examine the roles that race and poverty play in incarceration rates.
“I don’t think we will ever make any real progress if were going to start out by papering over issues like institutional racism and the criminalization of poverty,” Brooks said. “Those are two huge contributing factors, and we’ve got to figure out how to deal with them.”
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On Aug. 2, commissioners heard a presentation by the researchers from the Fort Worth campus of Tarleton State University. They had looked at records of jail procedures affecting more than 92,000 inmates booked into the county jail system between Jan. 1, 2013, and June 30, 2015.
About 29,000 inmates — slightly more than 31 percent — were African-American, the study showed. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, African-Americans made up a little more than 16 percent of the county’s total population.
Hispanic inmates were 11.1 percent of the jail population and 27.8 percent of the overall population, the study found.
The researchers found that one in four inmates had been screened for mental illnesses, that nearly 43 percent were in jail because of an alcohol or drug-related offense and almost one in six had an alcohol or drug dependency issue.
“I’ve said in the beginning of this study that jail is not the best place to get mental health services delivered,” Brooks said. “County jails will make you need mental health services.”
Commissioners agreed that the researchers, led by Tarleton professor Meghan Hollis, should continue studying ways to make the Tarrant County Jail more efficient and more humane.
Researchers identified areas where jail system improvements could be made. Initial assessment efforts, dealing with repeat offenders and pre-trial release programs were emphasized as research targets.
County jails will make you need mental health services.
Roy Brooks, Tarrant County Commissioner
About two years ago, Tarrant County officials agreed to pay $350,000 to settle a civil rights lawsuit filed by the sister of a mentally ill inmate found hanged in his cell in 2012.
Jonathan William Holden had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and psychosis and was arrested in March 2012 in Westlake. Holden was placed in a maximum-security area of the jail along with inmate Steven Lawayne Nelson, who was awaiting a capital murder trial in the beating death of the Rev. Clint Dobson, 28, pastor of NorthPointe Baptist Church in Arlington.
Nelson fashioned a noose out of blankets and lured Holden to the bars of his cell, where he put the noose around Holden’s neck and lifted him off the ground, killing him. Investigators reported finding Nelson’s DNA under Holden’s fingernails.
Nelson was indicted in Holden’s death, but after Nelson was sent to Death Row for the minister’s death, he was not tried in Holden’s killing.
Almost 43 percent of Tarrant County jail inmates were in jail due to alcohol or drug offenses. Tarleton State University study
Poverty also plagues the jail population, Brooks said. Poor people have to get arrested to get their mental health care needs met, Brooks said.
“People should not be in county jail simply because they are too poor to write a check to get out,” Brooks said. “People should be in jail because they are a danger to public safety, they are a danger to the community.”
Commissioner Andy Nguyen compared the situation with having a broken water pipe but concentrating on wiping water off the floor instead of focusing on fixing the broken pipe.
“We need to have a comprehensive analysis and try to restructure the way we do business so we fix the broken pipe,” Nguyen said. “That way we don’t continue to perpetuate the same model that doesn’t work.”
This report contains material from Star-Telegram archives.