Reforming Hays County’s criminal justice system pushed county commissioners earlier this month to establish a task force to prioritize ways to overhaul the process.
Hays County Judge Ruben Becerra said he prioritizes criminal justice reform for the county in an effort to streamline a process that is currently slow moving. That task force is part of a commission responsible for moving Becerra’s plan forward.
The commission is made up of 22 members including Hays County Pct. 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe, Pct. 3 Commissioner Lon Shell and Chief of Staff Alex Villalobos. Representatives from local law enforcement departments, the court system and other related criminal justice departments make up the commission as well.
While there is no formal deadline for the task force to identify methods of reform, Villalobos said the task force members have already begun making recommendations and taking steps toward a more efficient criminal justice system.
“It is a long process as we have several goals,” Villalobos said. “But we’re wanting the commission to work at a results-oriented pace.”
The commission is working off of two reviews, including a $200,000 professional assessment conducted by the county nearly 10 years ago. Members of the commission are also taking in a newer assessment developed by Villalobos.
According to the assessments, prisoners cost the county an estimated $160 per day, adding up to $14,000 a day to run county jail and prison operations. In the last four years, the overwhelming reason for arrests and detainment in the county was possession of marijuana.
Enforcement of cite-and-release policies, which are already in place in Hays County, is a way for the county to save money and speed up the justice process, Villalobos said.
Cite-and-release for small amounts of marijuana would still allow offenders to be judicially processed, but the county would save thousands daily by not housing offenders in the Hays County Jail.
“Our officers are not using cite-and-release,” Villalobos said. “We have maybe two instances recorded per year, so we’re looking into why our officers aren’t using this.”
Cite-and-release is just one of several processes under review. Shell said the commission is looking at lowering the county’s rate of recidivism.
“Several services need more funding and people,” Shell said.
Improving counseling and rehabilitation services will save the county time and money down the road, officials said.
One of the county’s first steps will be to present a grant to Hays County Commissioners that would provide financial relief for indigent legal services.
The grant, if approved and received, would provide 80% of funding for public defenders for those who cannot afford an attorney. The amount covered by the grant would decrease over three to four years until the county can cover the cost of more attorneys on its own.