Jail officials seek reimbursement or bail for prisoners with blue warrants
By By Sarah Thomas firstname.lastname@example.org
Jan. 19, 2013 at 10 p.m.
Members of the Sheriffs' Association of Texas met this past week to prepare for battle again with state lawmakers over an issue costing area taxpayers.
The contention is blue warrants, which are issued by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Parole Division. They act as an order to arrest and hold parole violators in county facilities without bail or reimbursement - and therein lies the problem.
The biennial battle between county sheriffs and the Texas Legislature centers around counties being required to feed, bed and provide medical treatment for the state's inmates, often for months at a time.
Sheriffs across the state are looking for the 83rd Texas Legislature to pass a bill that would make parole violators eligible for bail or require state reimbursement to counties for their services.
"This is the No. 3 issue on our list after mental health and border security," said Brazos County Sheriff Chris Kirk.
Kirk, who also is the chairman of the sheriffs' association's legislative committee, said the primary goal is to make blue warrants bondable but, reimbursement for holding blue warrant offenders also is much needed.
"Our top issue as far as blue warrants go is each county has a limited number of jail beds, and across the board, there is a percentage of those beds filled with inmates considered to be state inmates," Kirk said.
As of Dec. 1, county jails statewide were holding 1,651 blue warrant offenders on technical violations, with another 2,453 being held on new charges, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
Gregg County Sheriff Maxey Cerliano, who serves as vice president of the sheriff's association, said it is time for the state to move on the issue.
"The Sheriffs' Association of Texas sees this as a platform issue and has seen it as a platform issue for 10-plus years," Cerliano said.
He said he wants lawmakers to pay attention to the fact that blue warrants automatically deny bail to offenders, making them a drain on counties' pocketbooks until the state adjudicates its case.
"Unfortunately, what we see in many cases is that these blue warrant inmates can spend six months in the county jail waiting for the state to decide what it's going to do," Cerliano said. "Then, for whatever reason, that warrant is recalled or dismissed, and they're released from jail to continue their parole."
Parole violators fall into one of two categories - criminal parole violators or technical parole violators.
Criminal violations occur when parolees are charged with new offenses.
A technical violation can be anything from failing a drug test to not making regular visits with a parole officer.
The law requires a bond hearing for parolees who commit a criminal violation; but since any violation, be it technical or criminal, leads the parole board to issue a blue warrant, and the parolee must remain in the arresting county's jail until the warrant is recalled or dismissed or until parole is revoked and he or she is sent back to prison.
That means many parolees fill local jail beds for minor infractions.
"We just think something isn't right when a judge can set bond on a new offense, yet he has no discretion to set bond on a blue warrant," Cerliano said. "Our position as sheriffs is we just want the opportunity for that inmate to go before a judge and have a bond set."
Cerliano said that action will move state inmates out of county facilities quicker, saving local taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Cerliano believes resources bankrolled by county taxpayers should be reserved for housing the county's inmates - not those who belong to the state.
Although blue warrants are sanctioned by the Texas Board of Pardons and Parole, the financial burden falls on county taxpayers.
"When you're holding a blue warrant offender, you're responsible for them," Cerliano said.
Harrison County Sheriff Tom McCool said he would like to see legislation that requires the state to reimburse counties for blue warrant holds.
"After they've been processed, tried and sentenced, the state is responsible for them. They become the state's property, but they end up back on the county's tab," McCool said. "We're housing them, we're feeding them, and we're taking care of their medical issues at a significant cost to taxpayers."
Start multiplying the housing costs by how many beds blue warrant offenders are taking up in county facilities, and McCool said the cost can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars.
"It's one of those unfunded mandates that come down from the state. Unfortunately, it's costing our taxpayers money."
An inmate in Harrison County runs taxpayers $35.15 per day, and the jail there was holding nine blue warrant offenders this past week.
Those nine inmates have spent a combined 936 days in the Harrison County Jail, costing the county more than $32,000.
The Gregg County Jail was holding 31 blue warrant inmates Friday at a rate of $30.94 per day, per inmate.
Those 31 inmates have spent a combined 3,692 days in the Gregg County Jail, costing county taxpayers $114,230.
"I've got one guy who's been here for 345 days. His case was disposed on Jan. 8," Cerliano said.
That inmate accepted a plea deal for 16 years in state prison, yet Gregg County has supported him for nearly a year. And he will remain in county custody until a date for his transport to a state facility has been set.
"I've got several (inmates) in the triple digits," Cerliano said.
McCool said anytime money is being spent on inmates at the county level, it saves at the state level.
"The shorter time (the state) maintains custody of that individual, the less money the state expends," McCool said. "The state is using local facilities as somewhat of a disciplinary measure to get their parolees back in compliance with their parole stipulations."
McCool said although changes needed to be made, he isn't bitter toward the state. He believes the state's first and foremost concern is public safety.
"However, I do believe the state would be a bit more critical of who they paroled if they had to bear the financial responsibility," McCool said.
Jason Clark, spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, told the Houston Chronicle, "This is a policy issue for the Legislature to decide. We recognize the impact this has on counties and have procedures in place to issue summons in lieu of warrant, arrest and incarceration in county jails for low-risk offenders who are not absconders."
However, Cerliano said the state department rarely issues summons.
"Parole has the ability to issue a summons rather than a blue warrant and have (the parolee) come in for a hearing instead of arrested and placed in the county jail. So that is an option, though it is not usually used," Cerliano said.
Harry Battson, spokesman for the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles, said the Legislature has made changes during the past two decades to lessen the burden on counties.
"In the early 1990s, the law allowed 120 days for processing, and in the late 1990s, that was reduced to 61 days. In 2003, the Legislature reduced the time period to 41 days," Battson said.
Battson added that the hearing process takes time because due process must be observed, including "possible attorney involvement, right to discovery, calling witnesses, issuing subpoenas, reviewing evidence - all of which take time."
The process changes if the parolee commits a criminal violation, at which time the revocation hearing is postponed until the new charges are adjudicated.
Since more parolees land back in county facilities on criminal violations, Cerliano said the system becomes a stalemate in which these inmates stay on county dollars well past 41 days.
"When there is a new offense, what we see is that the judge doesn't want to proceed until parole resolves the blue warrant issue, and parole doesn't want to proceed until the judge resolves the new charges," Cerliano said.
He and others around the state thought a solution was in sight in 2007 when the Legislature passed House Bill 541.
That all changed when Gov. Rick Perry vetoed the measure - a bill many thought would help manage jail populations and ease county budgets by making parole violators eligible for bail and release from county facilities.
In 1999, House Bill 2123 - a call for the state to reimburse counties for holding state inmates - was introduced to the 76th Texas Legislature. That bill never made it out of committee.
Blue warrant offenders are not causing overcrowding in Gregg and Harrison counties, mainly because of Gregg County's capacity and Harrison County's last expansion project.
However, Cass County doesn't share that good fortune.
Newly-elected Cass County Sheriff Larry Rowe said his facility is packed, and, as a result his county houses more than 40 inmates in the Gregg County Jail, including three blue warrant inmates.
Each out-of-county inmate costs Cass County taxpayers about $40 per day. The county's cost to keep inmates at home runs about $26 per day, per inmate.
"We usually see anywhere from 10 to 15 blue warrant inmates here," Rowe said.
He said his county is spending about $250 a day on the 10 blue warrant inmates in his custody right now.
Rowe said the county is working to figure out how to work in a "desperately needed" jail expansion.
And he said reimbursement from the state to cover housing costs for blue warrant holds would help.
"My budget for housing inmates outside the county is $600,000 for the new fiscal year," Rowe said.
And Rowe, like McCool, believes the state is using local facilities to save money.
"You hate to say it because they're a fellow agency, but all they're using us for is a holding facility to punish their parole violators," Rowe said. "It's just not fair to the county's budget to do that."