Jail population fed by in-and-out minor offenses
Teton County Jailís occupancy increasing, but felonies arenít.
By Cara Froedge and Amanda H. Miller, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
July 30, 2008
The second part in a two-part series looking at the Teton County Jail. – Eds
While officials and even statistics say the Teton County Jail is overcrowded, most of the people arrested and taken to the lockup commit minor offenses, according to a News&Guide review of jail numbers.
The analysis comes as officials are asking voters to approve a $53 million justice center that includes $19 million for a new jail. Consultants say Teton County needs at least 81 beds in the jail to accommodate the growing population. The proposed facility would have 102.
While a 2003 study says that more serious crimes are at the heart of the county’s increasing jail population, the News&Guide found that fewer than 4 percent of the 12,562 booking charges since 2001 were serious crimes, which are called “index offenses” by those who calculate crime rates in every state. Those offenses include murder, rape, aggravated assault, burglary, robbery, larceny-theft and motor vehicle theft.
Nevertheless, when asked why Teton County needs a new jail, Teton County Commission Chairman Andy Schwartz is plainspoken in his response. “We have crime in Teton County, and we have criminals in Teton County who nobody wants on the streets,” he said.
Between 1997 and 2001, the county averaged about 72 arrests for index crimes annually, according to data. Between 2001 and June 20, that figure dropped to about 69 arrests annually, according to the News&Guide analysis of numbers provided by the Teton County Jail. That’s about a 4 percent drop in serious crime since the 2003 study.
(The News&Guide incorrectly reported last week those crimes were up 13 percent. The mistake resulted from counting all larcenies as index crimes rather than just felony larcenies.)
While jail occupancy and court filings are up, felonies are not. “There’s not some massive spike in scary crimes like homicide, arson and child abuse,” said Teton County Attorney Steve Weichman.
There were 12 percent more felony charges filed in 2007 than in 2006 – 56 compared to 49. There have, so far, been only 24 filed this year, said Dee Mahoney, the clerk of the 9th District Court.
This downturn in serious crime since 2001 differs from the findings published in the 2003 jail study, which found that arrests for serious crimes increased 106 percent between 1997 and 2001. The 2003 study also said that felony charges filed in 9th District Court increased 111 percent from 28 to 59.
“The increase in bookings is directly related to an increase in more serious crimes committed and law enforcement practices resulting in more arrests and subsequently more inmates lodged in jail,” the study states. While less serious crimes may be rampant, serious crimes – which typically have longer pre-trial and post-trial stays – were driving the increase in jail population, the study said.
The consultant who wrote the study, conducted a “snapshot” survey of the jail. He looked at the jail population on one day – April 10, 2003 – and found that 75 percent of the 30 inmates were in jail for felony charges and that 30 percent of those alleged felons were accused of committing violent crimes.
A similar “snapshot” survey conducted by the News&Guide on Tuesday found that the “snapshot” may depend on where the camera points. Only 25 percent of the 44 inmates in jail Tuesday were being held on felony charges. Five were arrested for probation violations or release-order violations on previous felony cases and five were arrested for violent crimes, including interference with an officer resulting in injury, attempted sexual assault of a minor, arson and aggravated assault. Another faced felony charges for a nonviolent felony. At least one of the felony inmates was sentenced to a prison term. Chris Belles has been awaiting transport to the Wyoming State Penitentiary in Rawlings for more than a month.
The 2003 study also found a low incarceration rate as an indicator that the criminal justice system is processing less serious offenders in and out of the jail quickly and likely utilizing a range of other sanctions in the place of jail time. The study found minor offenders do not overpopulate the jail.
“The inmates housed in the Teton County Jail have committed crimes, engaged in repeat criminal behavior, violated or failed to comply with alternative sanctions and or have criminal histories necessitating incarceration,” it states.
Average jail stay is 11 days
The average stay in jail was 11 days, and most people arrested for some of the most popular minor offenses spent less than 72 hours behind bars, according to the study.
“This offender group does not occupy limited jail beds for unreasonable periods of time,” the study says of minor offenders.
The 2003 “snapshot” found that more than 70 percent of inmates were being held in pretrial confinement. The News&Guide similarly found that about 73 percent of those in jail Tuesday are still awaiting judgement in their cases.
The 2003 study found that more serious felony offenders had an average length of stay of 33 days. Adding to that, the study found that a chunk of inmates had prior criminal histories or probation violation arrests, contempt and failure to appear charges and immigration holds that prevented them from being eligible for programs other than incarceration and, in some cases, allowed them to be held without bond.
The News&Guide was not able to calculate the length of stay according to charge type for inmates since 2001. There were no release numbers or statistics, which the 2003 study used, in the jail’s computer database, said Troy Sutton, the jail administrator. He said he wasn’t sure how they arrived at their statistics or what data they could have used.
Since the 2001 study, the average jail stay has gotten even shorter. The average length of stay has gone down consistently during the last four years and was 10.75 days between 2001 and 2007. It was down to 8.4 days in 2007, according to jail statistics.
The News&Guide found, as did the 2003 study, that many of those incarcerated are repeat offenders.
Some residents have asked if the proposed jail is really necessary.
“Why do we need a new jail?” Mike Craig wrote in a letter to the News&Guide, which appeared in the June 3 issue. “Are we more criminally inclined nowadays or is it just that our courts, law enforcement and we as a nation are more self-righteous, intolerant and indifferent to why more and more people are being incarcerated in this country than any nation on this planet? Our judges and cops see no problem with cramming our jails full of nondangerous people.”
A News&Guide analysis found about 45 percent of booking charges since 2001 were drug and alcohol related, including driving under the influence, minor under the influence, public intoxication, intoxicated pedestrian and possession of a controlled substance. That’s down from the 59 percent of arrests the 2003 study found were drug and alcohol related.
DUI was the most common charge in the 2003 study (23 percent) and in the News&Guide analysis, which found that 25 percent of arrests were DUIs. It was also the top reason people were arrested since 2001.
“So now you’re wondering if it’s possible to cite people for DUI and not arrest them,” said Jackson Police Chief Dan Zivkovich. “It’s possible, but…”
There are a lot of problems with not taking someone who has been drinking and driving to jail, he said.
There are options, Zivkovich said. Officers could write a ticket and then they could take the person to the police department and call a friend or family member to pick the person up. There are some communities that have tried that, some even in Wyoming. But friends and family have been known to drop offenders off at their cars, putting impaired drivers back on the road. And other times, there’s no friends or family to call. Those are a couple problems, Zivkovich said. Another is the message it sends.
“Drinking and driving is a serious enough crime, judges want people to sit in jail and have a chance to think about what they’ve done,” he said about pre-trial confinement. “It gives them a chance to sober up and see the consequences.”
Resort culture feeds drinking
Anyone accused of driving while under the influence typically stays in jail until their blood-alcohol concentration is zero.
Ninth Circuit Court Judge Timothy C. Day typically sentences first-time offenders who are convicted or plead guilty to time served, which means most serve their required jail time before they’re ever convicted of a DUI.
Day says drinking and driving “is the most dangerous thing that happens here every day.”
First, it’s Jackson culture, a resort-town culture, said Stacey Caesar, the outreach director at Curran-Seeley and director of the Communities Mobilizing, a group of treatment specialists, parents, educators and law enforcement trying to increase awareness and responsible drinking habits in Jackson Hole.
More than 86 percent of adults in Teton County admit to drinking occasionally compared with only 67 percent of adults in the rest of Wyoming, according to a 2006 phone survey conducted by the University of Wyoming.
“Certainly, there’s a lot more we can do,” Zivkovich said.
So what’s happening to prevent drunken driving in the first place?
Zivkovich said he takes a portable Breathalyzer to special events like the wine tasting to help people understand how they feel when they are a certain level of intoxication. He and his staff have not talked about taking the Breathalyzers out to the bars on weekend nights as a preventative measure because they don’t have enough staff at that time of night, he said. And there is no money for overtime hours.
Communities Mobilizing will launch a “social norms” campaign this fall to promote healthier attitudes about drinking and drugs, Caesar said.
The group has also started to offer server-training courses.
The courses are meant, among other things, to help servers determine when someone has had too much to drink and teach them how to cut someone off. She said the classes are starting off strong with some businesses sending employees. The course just got its first court-ordered student – someone who failed to check the identification of an underage person during compliance checks by law enforcement.
The town also passed an ordinance last November that any business that fails three compliance checks in a year will have its liquor license suspended.
Some say there aren’t enough options for safe transport. Crowds of people call and call and wait and wait for taxis outside the Mangy Moose on big weekends when concerts end and the bar closes at 2 a.m. The last START bus leaves Teton Village at 11:40 p.m. in the summer. Taxi fares in Teton County are unregulated, leaving some would-be passengers cash-strapped to pay unusually high rates. Some taxi drivers refuse, especially at peak times, to drive long distances to Rafter J or Hoback Junction, where the START bus does not go even during the day.
“There’s still no excuse for drinking and driving,” Zivkovich said, “especially in Jackson. There are so many other transportation options. The START bus may not run late, but we still have cabs and there are friends who will come pick you up. There are certainly more options here than there are in other Wyoming communities.”
Zivkovich said he doesn’t believe a late-night START bus would help because people wouldn’t take it.
“When you’re drunk, you don’t make good decisions,” he said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve pulled someone over for DUI and there’s a sober person in the car.”
People have to plan how they will get home before they start the night, he said.
Town administrator McLaurin said alcohol-related jail bookings may only stop with a drastic measure, such as not selling alcohol.
Even if the START bus were offered around the clock, people probably wouldn’t use it, he said. In Vail, Colo., where he used to work, the town paid for taxi service.
“People would use it, but we still arrested a bunch of DUIs,” McLaurin said.
Even people who choose to walk home may be getting in trouble from alcohol use. Data shows the second-highest number of jail bookings, at 11 percent, came from public intoxication charges.
Public intoxication is a town ordinance, and Jackson police officers would have made the vast majority of those arrests, Zivkovich said. Those arrested or cited for public intoxication are usually processed through the Jackson municipal court, he said.
They are arrested for their safety and for the safety of those they might impact. Drunk people can be aggressive and if they aren’t arrested at the first contact with police, they often end up being the source of other calls later in the night.
If there is someone nearby who can make sure a person who has been drinking gets home safe, Zivkovich said, the police usually release the person. If there’s no one to help and the person himself is helpless, officers typically arrest.
The Teton County Sheriff’s Office might arrest some people in town on the town ordinance, but most of their arrests fall under the intoxicated pedestrian statute, which accounts for less than 1 percent of total bookings.
“We’re not here to put people in jail,” said Teton County Sheriff Bob Zimmer. “We’re here to care for people’s safety. The safest place for a drunk is in jail.”
Zimmer said law enforcement officials are charged with ensuring residents comply with state and federal laws. Officers and deputies do that by stopping and warning offenders; stopping and citing offenders or stopping and arresting offenders.
“Our philosophy in this organization is to cite as many people as we can without making the physical arrest,” Zimmer said. “I don’t understand how people can say to me ‘don’t arrest so many people.’ We don’t arrest anybody that doesn’t need it.”
A roach is enough to warrant an arrest. But Zimmer’s philosophy is to cite people who have less than 3 ounces, a felony amount, of marijuana as long as they cooperate with deputies.
“We don’t need to be putting those people in jail,” he said.
Zivkovich operates the police department the same way. Officers typically only arrest those with more than 3 ounces.
Law enforcement also write tickets for breach of peace, Zimmer said. But if the suspect continues to breach the peace, another offense may mean jail time.
However, law enforcement puts people in jail for driving without a license, an offense which shows up on jail records six times more frequently in the last year and a half than it did in 2006.
Zimmer and Zivkovich say they arrest those people because they can’t be certain of their identities, and they don’t want to write citations and warrants for people who may not exist.
A review of sampled affidavits reveals that many of those arrested do have Mexican drivers licenses. A person is able to drive on a Mexican license, but only if they are a visitor, officials say. People who live and work here are required to have Wyoming licenses.
In most cases of arrest for driving without a license, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement detain the offenders, according to an earlier News&Guide analysis of ICE hold numbers from the jail.
Some officials say they expect crime in the county to become more rampant, making a larger jail necessary.
Local economist Jonathan Schechter discovered a decade ago that crime rates surge in communities with populations larger than 20,000.
The Town of Jackson commissioned Schechter to study growth in 1995, so he examined 40 towns in the West, including other resort and gateway areas, for everything from traffic to crime rates.
Schechter found a noticeable and consistent jump in the crime rate when communities reach 5,000 residents, another increase when they reach 20,000 and another when they hit 50,000.
The number of crimes committed triples between communities with populations of 10,000 and towns with populations more than 20,000, he said.
The U.S. Census released population estimates, two weeks ago, that Teton County has edged past the 20,000 mark.
Schechter said he believes Teton County actually crossed the threshold years ago. But he cautions that, as the population continues to grow, so will the number of crimes committed.
Zimmer said he doesn’t think violent crimes will become more rampant, but he is expecting more arrests.
“I think that [our crime] will be consistent with the types of crime we’ve been seeing, but it will increase,” he said.
A surge in circuit and municipal court cases could be evidence of a bump up in crime.
Ninth Circuit Court Judge Day tracks the number of court events, visits with defendants in open court, by the week. Day has averaged 50 events per week in winter and 75 to 100 per week in the summer for the last few years.
This winter, court events were up 50 percent over the last few years as Day averaged 75 events per week between January and June, he said.
Jail records show that the jail was fuller than it usually is during the winter months as well.
The situation is not dire right now, most agree. The new justice center is a plan for the future. It’s a plan that counts on a growing population and growing crime rates.
Given current zoning, the county and town together could accommodate a population of 35,630, according to a controversial figure in the Jackson/Teton County Comprehensive Plan.
Valley residents say it’s growth that’s most worrisome to them.
Rich Bloom, who heads the grassroots group South Park Neighbors, said people he speaks to believe the need is there for a new jail; however, they want the facility discussed in context with the comprehensive plan revisions.
“I think people fear the huge price tag because it will take up the [specific purpose excise tax] for so many years,” he said.
Bloom said people want to wait for the plan to be finished so they know what other needs – pathways, sewer, roads, for example – may arise. Then, they’ll be better able to weigh the need for a jail with other community needs.
“People are sensitive,” Bloom said. “They’re not just being cheap. They’d like see what growth is going to cost going forward and how to pay for it.”