DALLAS COUNTY, Texas — There isn’t much space left inside the Dallas County jail and the lone Republican on the Commissioners Court was blunt when asked what happens if the county jail exceeds capacity.
“We spend a lot of money. A lot of money. Basically we’ll have to ship folks to other places,” JJ Koch said on Inside Texas Politics. “We’re already spending a tremendous amount in overtime dollars. If we go about 900 more folks in our jail, we’ll be spending millions of dollars to house them elsewhere.”
The Dallas County jail has a capacity of around 7,200 beds. More than 6,300 are currently filled, some 88% of capacity. A “normal” jail population would be around 5,000.
Koch used the Harris County jail, which is facing similar overcrowding issues, as an example. That county has sent some inmates to Louisiana to help address the issue. But Koch says that’s costing them tens of millions of dollars.
And Harris County leaders were just given 30 days to fix what the state is calling a compliance issue due to the overcrowding, as some defendants were being held in the booking area far longer than the law allows before being processed.
Back in Dallas County, Commissioner Koch says there are many folks to blame for the overcrowding issue. But he says it largely rests on criminal district judges, those that oversee felony cases.
“They’re not disposing of enough cases. One of the big things is they have to hold trials,” Koch told us. “And typically, when you get closer to trial, usually plea deals in those more difficult cases where there’s certain contentious issues can get resolved. Because we have not been holding trials, no one has had their feet held to the fire in the camp of the prosecutors or the defendants.”
Judges have argued that pandemic-related closures and COVID concerns inside courtrooms was a major factor contributing to the backlog.
But Koch points out that counties all over the state of Texas dealt with the same problem.
And while most other counties have seen a decline, many times dramatic, in active and pending felony cases, Dallas County has gone in the other direction, and the number of those types of cases have increased there more than any other county.
And when lawmakers return to Austin in January for the next legislative session, Koch says the most important thing they can do to help county jails is to put the budget surplus to good use. The Republican says in particular, he’d like to see a significant amount of money diverted to mental healthcare.
“The second largest mental health facility in the state of Texas is the Dallas County jail. So, we receive a lot of those folks. We’re paying for mental health services no matter what,” Koch said. “We need the state to help us do that before someone gets in jail. More effective out-patient services. More beds for in-patient services. But then also, we need more training.”