By Sahar Chmais
HAYS COUNTY – Residents and community activists have been pushing for Hays County Jail transparency, and commissioners listened. The county has launched an online dashboard detailing who is in the Hays County Jail.
The dashboard, provided in partnership with the nonprofit Vera Institute for Justice, includes the charge class, gender, race, length of stay, bond amount, age group and more. County Commissioner Lon Shell (R), said the criminal justice system is one of the most costly systems in a county. Having this dashboard will not only yield transparency, but it is an informative tool for the taxpayer.
“I would say if you look at any single expense that we take from our maintenance and operations budget,” Shell said, “criminal justice issues are at the top.”
In 2016, voters passed a $100 million bond package that expanded and renovated the county jail. This is the kind of responsibility those who are not directly affected still pay the price for.
Additionally, the majority of people occupying jail beds are poor, working class, marginalized or not convicted, said Jasmine Heiss, project director at Vera. Jail does not have to be a first-line of response to poverty or public health problems, she added.
Access to the dashboard and understanding the numbers could have a larger impact down the line on policies made about who should go to jail and who should not.
Residents who are put in jail for substance abuse or mental health concerns, for example, would not benefit from going to jail, Shell said. This will not fix their problem and it will most likely exacerbate the issue. Instead of jail, these residents can be placed in a program or service which can make sure they can still return to their family and to work, he explained.
This tool can also give insight on cite and divert or cite and release policies to see how they affect the jail population and find ways to get them on a downward trend, Shell said.
Some system limitations exist. The dashboard is not intended to be used for intricate analysis, said Beatrice Halbach-Singh, research associate at Vera, but it does highlight booking trends. Data from the dashboard will only be refreshed every two weeks.
Another shortcoming from the system is that it does not distinguish the Latinx race from other racial groups, but Halbach-Singh said she is hopeful it will be intact this week.
As the program continues to improve, the ultimate goal will be to shed light on the Hays County Jail.