Jail overcrowding vexes officialsSheriff, lawyers point to tardy parole office, jammed-up DPS lab, booming population as causes

There’s been a change for the worse in the local criminal justice landscape with an increase in crime and criminals keeping Ector County Jail’s bottleneck of inmates plugged and officials flummoxed for a long-term solution.
Sheriff Mike Griffis and local attorneys say a combination of factors is at work, keeping the jail way over capacity with hundreds of inmates parceled out to other counties at more than $230,000 per month.
County commissioners just voted to contract with an architects’ consultancy firm to plan two pods holding 336 men on the jail’s north side, but Griffis says it’s still hard to be hopeful with the county’s population projected to jump by the tens of thousands in coming decades. The jail is at 2500 S. U.S. Highway 385 on the south side of town.
“I think we have gotten to a point where we can’t catch up,” said Griffis. “People are getting arrested quicker than we can get them through the system.”
Describing scads of arrests for aggravated assault and possession of narcotics, he said his jail also confines an unusual number of people charged with murder, more than 20, with high bonds they can’t make.
Griffis said over 40 defendants have bonded out through the county’s pre-trial services office, which writes bonds at only three percent of the total instead of most bail bondsmen’s 10 percent; but another 40 state parolees who are being held without bond for “blue warrant” revocation proceedings can’t be returned to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice until their new local misdemeanor or felony charges are adjudicated.
And he said 23 blue warrant detainees who don’t have new local charges are awaiting hearings with the Odessa State Board of Pardons and Paroles Office. Asked if more assiduousness by parole officials is needed, the sheriff said, “It wouldn’t hurt at all because it can take weeks.
“We have 635 in our jail right now, which leaves 32 empty beds,” he reported March 7. “But one good night and we’ll be overcrowded in a hurry.”
Griffis said the county was paying $30 a day for each of its 25 inmates in Lynn County Jail at Tahoka, $46 a day for 54 in Hudspeth County Jail at Sierra Blanca, $45 a day for 12 in McLennan County Jail at Waco, $49.87 a day for 75 in Reagan County Jail at Big Lake and $40 a day for seven at Scurry County Jail at Snyder. That totaled $7,804 per day, $234,120 per month and $2,809,440 per year.
Griffis noted the county has a contract with Hale County at Plainview that it wasn’t using. “I don’t see a quick fix to this,” he said.
“Even building onto the jail, it could be 2 1/2 to three years. Looking 10 years down the road at the population growth projections, we’re going to be right back where we are today.”
Griffis said ending the practice of holding blue warranted parolees until their local charges were dispensed with, returning them to prison and bringing them back when their cases went to trial would increase the burden on deputies who traveled more than 130,000 miles transporting inmates last year. “We get over 100 emails a day from the district attorney’s and county attorney’s offices that they need this inmate on a certain day,” he said.
“It’s on us. I think our only choices at this point are to keep housing them in other jails or expand the local jail. Our local justice system is doing everything they can do to speed up the process. We’re just in a pickle, and we’re going to have to make arrangements to get out of it. I’d rather pay wages for some local folks here.”
Griffis said 50 inmates on whom the necessary “pen packets” had been prepared were awaiting Texas Department of Criminal Justice transportation, 10 or 11 at a time each Friday, to the diagnostic unit at Huntsville.
In a news release, the Austin-based Texas Criminal Justice Coalition said the Board of Pardons and Paroles held 20,662 hearings in fiscal 2013 to determine if parolees should return to prison or stay on parole. “Ultimately, the board reinstated the supervision or reparoled more than half, or 10,777, of these individuals, which means the board did not deem them a threat to society,” the coalition said.
“And yet each one of these individuals spent, on average, 34 days in the county jail.”
The Hobby Center for Public Policy at the University of Houston projects that Ector County’s population will increase from its current estimated 161,393 to 184,384 in 2030, 210,246 in 2040 and 234,964 in 2050.
Local defense lawyers Justin Low, David Zavoda and Robert Hollmann agreed that the problem is vexatious. “Those held on blue warrants with new charges are the ones that need to be expedited because they sometimes take forever,” said Low, noting that one such client of his waited 18 months before finally seeing his case dismissed on the ground that it had been unconstitutionally delayed.
“A lot who get arrested can’t afford their bonds. Their cases are not moving fast, so they just sit there. I have one now who has been there for over a year.”
Low said most county inmates who know from the time they’re arrested, as do their attorneys, prosecutors and judges, that they’re prison-bound would rather go to the TDCJ promptly because conditions are better in state prison with more freedom of movement and the options of having jobs and taking classes. “Very few want to stay here,” he said.
Zavoda said the Texas Department of Public Safety Laboratory in Lubbock is part of the problem, often taking a year to return its analyses of narcotics. “Our judges are giving personal recognizance bonds for people awaiting trial on non-drug state jail felonies,” Zavoda said.
“The D.A.’s office is pretty good at eyeballing those cases. There’s a lot of jail overcrowding, but it’s sometimes outside the county’s power to control. The DPS is far behind on testing.”
Hollmann said the oilfield has been a factor. “We have a lot of criminals in Odessa who came during the last boom and stayed,” Hollmann said.
“Everybody is doing the best they can. It’s just a hard problem. It takes a long time to get a drug test from the DPS out of Lubbock. It was taking a year or more at one time, but it is getting better. We need to expand the jail, we really do. It’s just a situation that got out of control, and everybody is trying to get it back under control again.”