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Crime & Justice

Hays County Creates Public Dashboard To Help 'Shine A Light' On Its Jail Population

A barbed wire fence around the Hays County Jail
Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Data about inmates in the Hays County Jail is now accessible to the public.

There are almost 500 people sitting in the Hays County Jail right now. More than 70% of them are awaiting trial. A large majority of them are under 34, and at least half of them can expect to be in jail for up to six months.

This is the kind of data now publicly available on the Hays County Jail Dashboard, a new online tool the county created with the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that works with counties across Texas to help ensure fairness within the criminal justice system.

County Commissioner Lon Shell said the tool will help policymakers make decisions about the criminal justice system in Hays County,

"We've made several improvements over the last year," Shell said. "I believe it's going to be important to be able to look back and see trends, see if we are affecting things in the way that we want. Our jail population is just one variable, but it's a very important variable."

The community organization Mano Amiga was among those who called for the data. It has been actively pushing for diversion programs to keep low-level offenders out of jail.

"We all want to see our community safe and thriving and to ensure that the people we love have access to the services and resources they need without having to go to jail first," Eric Martinez, policy director for the group, said.

Shell said the data is important even for those not directly affected by the criminal justice system, because taxpayers bear some of the financial costs of keeping people incarcerated. Voters passed a bond package in 2016, for example, that included roughly $100 million for expanding and renovating the crowded county jail.

"[Providing criminal justice] is one of the most costly things a county does," he said. "I would say if you look at any single expense that we take from our maintenance and operations budget, criminal justice issues are at the top."

Earlier this month, Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra called the conditions of the jail into question. He said he received complaints from “attorneys, employees, inmates, and community members” about the conditions there, and requested a tour. When the sheriff denied the judge a tour, citing the ongoing construction and COVID-19 protocols, Becerra asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to conduct an inspection. The jail was found to be in compliance with minimum standards.

Ultimately, representatives with the Vera Institute hope the tool will "shine some light" on the Hays County Jail.

"In Hays County and across the country, the majority of people who are occupying jail beds are unconvicted," said Jasmine Heiss, director of the Vera Institute's In Our Backyards Project, which explores mass incarceration across the country. "And nearly everyone in our nation's jails is poor, working class or otherwise marginalized. But we know that jail doesn't have to be a first-line response to poverty or public health problems."

The data in the dashboard will be updated every two weeks, and comes from the county's record management system.

Got a tip? Email Riane Roldan at rroldan@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @RianeRoldan.

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