City needs to join county on justice center

January 3, 2019 GMT

At long last, Bexar County has opened its Justice Intake and Assessment Center.

It’s a clean and safe space where arrested people can be assessed, formally charged, and either released on bond or placed in jail. This expansion to the jail campus west of downtown follows best practices. It uses an open-booking model, meaning if people are calm and orderly, they can wait in an open space as opposed to a cell.

There is a closed sally port for prisoner transport. There is private space for public defenders to meet their clients, and dedicated space for prosecutors as well as medical and mental health providers. It is a tremendous upgrade over the city’s intake center at the Frank Wing Municipal Court building, an antiquated and dingy place where arrested people are held in cells. It’s not a place you would want a loved one to be held.

But while the county has opened its new intake center, the city, which is responsible for about 60 percent of the arrests in the region, has refused to participate. It has chosen to stick with Frank Wing despite its many shortcomings. This is a mistake. The city and county should be working together to make the new intake center work.

There are some design issues at the county’s new building, which the city has cited as reason to not make the move. But these are not impossible obstacles. At any rate, these design concerns pale in comparison to larger issues: First, taxpayers should not be funding two intake centers. It’s redundant and wasteful. Second, the Frank Wing building is part of the planned expansion of University of Texas at San Antonio’s downtown campus. Sticking with the building, then, is not a long-term plan. Is the city going to build a new intake center? This brings us to the third point, like it or not, the county built a new center. The ship has sailed.

Unfortunately, it does have some design issues. First and foremost, it needs a bigger entrance. It’s too small for instances when there will be multiple arrested people, some of whom will be agitated and distraught. It also needs more DWI stations. The courtroom for bail hearings is too small, and a property room will need to be built for people arrested by city police. But Bexar County officials have said, again and again, these design issues can be fixed and accommodated.

This issue was crystallized for us during a recent tour of the Lubbock County Detention Center. Lubbock County uses open booking, and we saw an orderly detention center where arrested people were safe and treated with respect, and treated others with respect. They watched ESPN while waiting for their bail hearings. When one inmate became distraught, he was placed in a cell. When another inmate showed obvious signs of mental illness, detention officers rushed to calm her.

The difference between that environment and Frank Wing, where we saw and heard inmates kicking their cell doors, languishing in group cells with a single shared toilet, sleeping on the floor or sitting on metal benches, was striking.

The Lubbock detention center also highlighted Bexar county’s design flaws. The front entrance was much bigger, for example, providing enough space for arrested people to be safely transferred. The courtroom for bail hearings was much bigger.

There has been some city pushback against open booking, but this is really irrelevant. It is the county’s jail, meaning the county chooses how to control its population. What matters is that people in custody are in a safe space, officers are back in the community as quickly as possible, and taxpayers aren’t paying for two intake centers.

The county will need some time to work out processes at its new building and to address these design concerns, so from that vantage point, having two intake centers for a brief transition period is beneficial. But a prolonged failure to partner on this is a public disservice.

Let’s go, city and county. Figure this out, and put the community first.