Dallas County jail surges to 97% of capacity; officials look at overflow options

Dallas County jail’s population has surged over the summer to 97% of capacity due to new case management software that has wreaked havoc on the criminal justice system.

Jail population manager LaShonda Jefferson reported on Friday that there are 6,631 inmates. The jail remains in compliance with state standards, but officials have started searching for a jail to take inmates.

“I’m scouring the state,” Commissioner John Wiley Price said. “I’m just telling you what kind of dire circumstances we are up against.”

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Throughout a Friday meeting of the Jail Population Committee, officials from across the criminal justice system pointed to the new case management system as the source for their struggles, delays and uncertainty on the status of inmates’ cases.

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The software has impeded staff for months — long enough to hit a state deadline that requires the county to release inmates who have not been indicted within 90 days. Authorities say some inmates have been released because the software problems are making it difficult, if not impossible, for prosecutors to file cases against them by the deadline.

Jefferson said she sent 25 cases within the last week to be reviewed.

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The jail population had been decreasing before the county moved to a new criminal case management system in May, she said. Once the new Odyssey system went online, Jefferson said the inmate population started to rise.

“Our book-in totals have remained fairly consistent over the last three years, yet the jail population has skyrocketed,” she said. “So this appears to be indicative of internal processing shifts.”

Jefferson said the new software has had a “negative impact on our current business processes, and the reports that we’re used to utilizing to navigate the jail population are no longer accurate.”

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The district attorney’s office, public defenders and judges say the fallout of the county’s criminal database migration to Odyssey has left inmates languishing in jail longer than before the change with some waiting weeks for an attorney to be appointed.

County Clerk John Warren is the custodian of records who has been in charge of the system migration. He has continued to emphasize that any system change has problems, and many of these issues could have been resolved if stakeholders had been more engaged earlier on in the process.

Outsourcing bed space

Price said at commissioners’ regular Tuesday meeting that staff are searching for space for inmates when the jail becomes full, but it has been difficult to find availability.

“We’ve got to get some of those felony cases down and out of here,” he said.

Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said many county jails are getting full and large staffing shortages across the state mean an empty bed is not enough.

“You could have 100 empty beds, but if you don’t have the proper number of staff then they’re not actually operational,” he said in an interview. “It’s becoming much more difficult.”

He said he is struggling to find room for inmates — even in rural county jails. Tarrant and Harris counties already have contracts in place for additional beds.

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Dallas County Administrator Darryl Martin advised commissioners to get ready to sign a contract for more beds.

“We’ll hold them so we have beds ready if we need it,” he said Tuesday. “I’d hate to not have the beds in a crisis situation.”

Wood acknowledged this was a quick climb to near capacity for the county jail and said he and county leaders are working to keep the jail safe and in compliance.

Wood is helping Dallas County find bed space as well as working with the state to move inmates after their case has been disposed.

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The county jail holds inmates while they wait for a decision in their case. Once that decision has been made — through a trial, a plea, probation or another outcome — those sentenced to serve more time head to a state prison.

Wood said he has gotten the state to pick up more Dallas inmates every week than normal in an effort to reduce the escalating county population. Dallas County is working to ensure these inmates are “paper-ready” as soon as possible, he said.

As the jail’s population continues to grow, so do its costs. The jail costs Dallas County about $12 million a month to run on average. In July, the county spent nearly $13.2 million to operate the jail — about $585,000 more than last July.

Price estimates contracting with another county for jail beds could cost an additional $18 million.

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Releasing inmates

Inmates are now starting to be released because prosecutors have been unable to bring cases before a grand jury by the state deadline.

Jefferson told the committee on Friday that in the last week, she has found at least 25 inmates who had been in jail longer than 90 days and had not been indicted. State law requires that if an inmate accused of a felony has not gone before a grand jury by 90 days, they must be released on bond.

Ellyce Lindberg, the district attorney’s chief of grand jury and intake, said on Friday attorneys can’t rely on the new case management system.

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“Some of the cases that were showing up in Odyssey as prefiled actually had been indicted for a couple of months,” she said. “So it’s not an easy thing.”

“Yeah, the systems are definitely working against us,” Jefferson replied. “I guess we’ll just continue the manual research and the feedback from the courts.”

Price told the committee officials continue to meet to work out system problems.

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