On Tuesday, the Smith County Commissioners Court was warned that the county jail is close to reaching capacity due to the slow transferring of inmates to state prisons.
“If this trend continues for another month and a half, we could be in a precarious situation,” Jeff Warr, Precinct 1 county commissioner, said.
The Smith county jail is currently holding 941 inmates, fast approaching its calculated capacity of 1,132. Nearly 170 inmates being held are required to be taken by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice within 45 days to state prisons to serve their sentences. But due to the COVID-19 pandemic, these “paper-ready” inmate transfers have slowed significantly.
“I know we ask this question pretty regularly, but that paper-ready number is getting really large,” Smith County Judge Nathaniel Moran said. "Any update on when TDCJ might take any additional prisoners?"
At the beginning of April, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice stopped accepting transfers from county jails to state prisons due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus. Many of the 169 inmates that are waiting to be transferred have been in the county jail since that time, racking up extra costs for more jail personnel and clearing supplies.
“We … call them (TDCJ) every day to see if they’re going to accept more inmates, and at this time they’re not,” Chief John Shoemaker, who gave the report on the jail, said.
The last set of inmates, around 60, were transferred out of the jail was about one month ago. To slow overcrowding in the jail, officers are using a “citation and release” strategy for less serious crimes that normally would require booking.
“We’re running into an issue with population,” Shoemaker said. “Our female population, this morning, is 199 … we’re running out of places to put (them in their current housing)."
Smith County will get a credit for the extra costs of caring for the inmates through an adjustment of the criminal justice mandate, part of the calculations of the county’s effective tax rate.
The jail has already been award $53,000 from the Coronavirus Emergency Supplemental Funding program for five weeks of the extra personal protective equipment, cleaning supplies and personnel costs needed to care for the increased population, Shoemaker said.
In other actions, the commissioners court also unanimously approved the operation of the East Texas Auto Theft Task Force, a multi-agency task force focused on tracking and solving auto theft cases.
“Last year, the task force they made 79 felony arrests, 18 misdemeanor arrests, they filed 83 criminal cases with the (District’s Attorney’s) office and inspected almost 1,700 vehicles,” Moran said. “They recovered 218 stolen vehicles with a total estimated value just shy of 3 million dollars.”
During the public comment section of the meeting, public commentators discussed the validity of the hydroxychloroquine to use as a cure for COVID-19, while two other members of the community asked for a mail slot at the local election office to drop off mail-in ballots for the November election.
The next Commissioner’s Court meeting will take place next Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. in the Smith County Annex building downtown. A special session will be held that evening at 5:30 p.m. for the public to discuss the Smith County budget.