Thursday, August 21, 2008

Jails: 'Overcrowding' Not the Issue

August 21, 2008, 7:15 a.m.

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Elevators and the Escalating Costs of Incarceration

"Slow Elevators" and . . .

One of my favorite stories when explaining "systems analysis" is the hotel elevator story.

A hotel was besieged with guests' complaints about the hotel's slow elevators. Understandably, the hotel manager called the elevator service company. The elevator repair folks did what they could, but the complaints continued. He called them back again, but the elevators still ran too slowly to suit the hotel's guests.

A systems analyst who was staying at the hotel heard of the problem and offered his services as a consultant.

"What's the problem?" he asked.

"The elevators are too slow," the manager explained.

"What do you mean?" the consultant continued.

"I mean we're getting lots of complaints from our guests about the elevators," the manager said.

"Aha," the consultant brightened, "You don't mean you have a problem with slow elevators, you have a problem with guests' complaints."

"Well, yeah, I guess so," the puzzled manager replied. "But what they're complaining about is those slow elevators."

"Give me a day or two and I think I can come up with something," the consultant said with confidence.

He spent the morning watching the guests as they waited for the elevators to arrive. He observed near the elevator doors in the lobby and on four or five of the upper floors where the rooms were located. He saw guests looking at their watches, and pacing back and forth as they waited.

By the afternoon of the first day he had solved the problem and reported his proposal to the manager: "Put full-length mirrors across the hall from every set of elevator doors on every floor."

Six months later he was back at the hotel and ran into the manager. "Are those slow elevators running any faster now?" he grinned.

"I doubt it," said the manager, "but we haven't had a single complaint about slow elevators since we put in those mirrors."

In short, the problem was neither "slow elevators" nor the time people were waiting, it was their lack of something to do while they were waiting that caused them to complain about "slow elevators." Give them the opportunity to preen in front of a full-length mirror and the elevators were getting to their floor almost too soon. Identifying the problem as "complaints" rather than "slow elevators" was what enabled the systems analyst to envision a solution.

. . . "Overcrowded Jails"

So what does all this have to do with an "overcrowded" Johnson County Jail?

The Press-Citizen editorializes this morning, "Scales Tipping on the Cost of a New County Jail," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 21, 2008, p. A11. The editorial speaks of "overcrowded conditions [with] the average daily population . . . at least 30 inmates more than the jail can hold."

From time to time I have blogged about alternatives to either "house the inmates in other jails" or build a multi-million-dollar expanded new one.

When I have, John Neff has usually weighed in with an informed comment he's added to my blog entry, trying to keep me both honest and better informed about the practicality of my "solutions."

Today, alongside the Press-Citizen's editorial, is a full-length op ed column by John Neff in which someone who is really informed and has thought about this stuff lays out what I would be writing if I knew more. John Neff, "Controlling the Jail Population," Iowa City Press-Citizen, August 21, 2008, p. A11.

Read it. Not just because we all need to know more about our criminal justice system -- and the prisons and jails that constitute our major, if not our only, public housing program in America. Not just because we'll probably be asked to take on an added property tax burden to pay for a new jail. But because of what Neff has to teach all of us about how we need to approach public policy questions in general, from indoor rain forests to outdoor rivers' floodplains.

Whether or not our jails are "overcrowded" is not the issue. Indeed, framing the issue that way is so totally overly simplistic as to virtually guarantee we'll come up with the wrong answers.

What we ought to be asking -- and what John Neff does ask, and answer -- are questions such as the following:

How many persons are booked into our jail? What are their most common offenses? Why couldn't the police use "cite and release" for those who will probably be released on bond anyway? Since "public intoxication" (34% of offenses) and "OWI" (28%) are nearly 2/3rds of our jail's occupants, might it be cheaper to build a "sobering up or detoxification center" than a "jail"?

So, we could concentrate on reducing the number of people who are booked into jail.

We could also reduce the length of stay for those who are there.

It turns out that 80% of the bed use each year is by those who are in the jail for three weeks or more (68% of those booked are released within 24 hours). How could we reduce the long-term stays? Neff suggests: "mental health diversion, improving court efficiency and revising [bail practices]."

Do we have returning jail occupants?

Absolutely; about 350 individuals. They constitute 10% of all bookings. What to do? Neff suggests, "substance abuse screening and treatment, the Department of Transportation Court . . . and the new drug and mental health court." (I seem to recall reading somewhere that on the order of a full half of all prisoners are suffering from some form of mental illness, which prisons are not designed to deal with and, if anything, simply make worse. Providing meaningful and hopeful treatment in mental hospitals would do a lot to reduce "overcrowded" jails, mental illness -- and the total costs to taxpayers for dealing with this population.)

Neff goes on to discuss "Increasing the use of jail alternatives" -- something he thinks Johnson County has done a pretty good job of, but could do even more about.

In fairness, and to avoid any possible distortion of his views (though the best source is the full text of his column, which I've already encouraged you to read), my impression from his comments added to my prior blog entries is that he felt we had pretty much done all we could by way of alternatives and that our best course was to consider a new and expanded jail. Hopefully, he may see this blog entry and add a clarification of his own on that score.

Finally, I would simply note that a part of what we're dealing with here is what a systems analyst would call a "peak load problem." For example, how many shopping carts should a supermarket, or big box store, invest in? If they buy enough to handle the largest crowds they'll ever have, they will have a capital cost/investment most of which will be sitting idle most of the 168 hours each week. If they don't, they may lose a customer from time to time whose purchases might have covered that cost. The airlines are confronting this question now with regard to the number of planes, flights and employees that will optimize their cash flow. How many rooms should a new hotel have? A large family, with a single bathroom, and most family members needing to leave the house about the same time each day, also has a "peak load" problem.

And so it is with jails.

I don't know when Iowa began laying out what are now its 99 counties; probably about 150 years ago. They made sense as governing units when you had to get to the county seat on horseback or in a wagon moving relatively slowly along sometimes muddy dirt roads. Now we have automobiles, Interstates and what I would suspect is one of the nation's best "farm-to-market" systems of county roads.

It probably makes sense to continue to provide some governmental functions from within these relatively tiny jurisdictions called "counties," with their "county seat courthouses." Other functions might better be performed from regional centers, the state capital -- or even Washington, D.C. And still others from cities -- or even precincts, and neighborhoods.

Much of our "overcrowding" problem, as the Press-Citizen's editorial acknowledges, is a result of the fact "that the floodwaters have closed down Linn County Jail." That is, because the Linn County Jail, to the north, is not available for our overflow -- our "peak load problem" -- it now costs more to ship our excess inmates to more distant jails. With all respect, however serious and costly that problem may be we don't need, as the saying has it, "a permanent solution to a temporary problem."

The flooded jail gives us two opportunities/lessons we should seize: (1) don't ever, again, build a public building (such as a jail) in a floodplain where we know that it will, someday, be flooded out, and (2) let's rethink the possibilities and benefits of "regional" jails to deal with counties' peak load problems.

I'll leave it to others to calculate the optimum occupancy rate and peak load solution. But I would guess it to be somewhere between 70% and 90%. That is, if (after we've done every imaginative thing we can think of to reduce the number of inmates and their length of stay) the Johnson County Jail is adequate to handle the number of inmates for 70% to 90% of the 365 days of the year, the most economical next step might be to join in with the surrounding counties (and someone else can figure what that optimum number, location, area and population would be) to build a "regional overflow jail" for all to use.

The alternative is for all 99 counties to build jails that can handle, say, 95% to 98% of their largest ever occupancy -- with a significant number of empty beds in county jails all across Iowa on any given evening.

There's more than one way to speed up the slow elevators.

Just a thought.

# # #


Anonymous said...

I think there is an angle here that is being ignored totally. The current facility is not in good shape and is not cost effective operations wise. It could be a lot safer for the staff who works there as well as the inmates. Remember this is a 24-7-365 facility, so you have a much greater depreciation factor. The building is not new or even close at 27 years of that level of use. The County has paid much in capital costs on the roof, plumbing, and other systems in the last decade. That is not being talked about at all.

The County needs a new jail with enough land to expand in increments if need be. This is the only cost effective measure for taxpayers in the long run and the safest for staff and inmate alike.

Anonymous said...

I suppose we could put up full length mirrors in the Ped-Mall and see what happens.

On a more serious note the law requires booking for offenses more serious than a simple misdemeanor and the only booking facility is at the jail.

If we could count on people showing up to be booked at a more convenient time it the police officer could release them after telling them when to report for booking. Because such a large percentage of those booked are intoxicated that is not a practical solution.

The editorial was about population control not the physical state of the jail. I think it would be a very good idea for people to visit the jail and courthouse to see for themselves what their condition is.


I will try to comment later on your other points.


Anonymous said...


Jails are not small prisons where all inmates are sentenced. The admission rate for all Iowa prisons is about 6,500 per year about the same as the number booked per year in the Johnson County jail. The average daily population of the jail is about 130 and the prison population is about 8,700.

If no prisoners were released it would take six days for the jail population to double and about 18 months for the prison population to double. The number released is very nearly the same as the number admitted for both jails and prison. If the admission rate is slightly larger than the release rate the jail or prison population will increase.

On the other hand if no prisoners were admitted it would take about year for the jail to empty and the prison will be empty when the last lifer dies.

For both jails and prisons a reduction in the return rate will reduce the population and that has just happened with Iowa prisons. My view is that it would be possible to reduce jail return rate if we can get people to think about the frequent returnees. The problem is that they fly below the radar because for the most part they commit misdemeanors.

The number of jail bookings per day ranges from zero to high water mark of 140 in a 16 hour period. Even when there are no football games or rock concerts the jail population can increase or decrease by 20% in a single day. The plot of the release rate of the jail reminds me of the output of a geyser. If we could learn how to reduce these large fluctuations it would save us a lot of money and reduce the complexity of jail population management.

I did not have space to discuss the fact that there is a waiting list to get into jail to serve a jail sentence.
If we include no-shows the current list has about 240 names. Jail waiting lists are fairly common and when you build a new large jail you can guess what happens. The instant filling of a new jail is a temporary state of affairs and things settle down fairly quickly.

Your shopping cart model does not have the horsepower to deal with something as complex as a jail.