Monday, September 20, 2010

McLennan County Controversy Fueled By Hard Times

Waco - Two local courthouse races are beginning to generate heat and light in near-chemical chain reactions.

In the contest for the County Judge slot on the Commissioners' Court, a liberal Democratic Party challenger is beginning to raise fundamental questions about public policy regarding economic development and the expansion of the capacity of the McLennan County Jail.

A Republican in the race for Criminal District Attorney is putting pressure on a veteran Democratic prosecutor about the release of serious offenders for lack of timely indictments because of a delay in the production of physical evidence.

Both show a definite schism in the approach to performing criminal justice functions during times of expansion in which hard times are severely limiting resources to get the job done.

An attorney and social psychologist with a background in environmental issues and the study of questions to come before Congressional committees, Dr. Ralph Cooper is in fundamental dispute with the voting record and leadership style of veteran public servant Jim Lewis, a multi-term County Judge and Deputy Sheriff, TDC employee and County Commissioner with 40 years of experience working for McLennan County government. For much of that 40 year career, Judge Lewis was the McLennan County Jail Administrator.

Dr. Cooper points to what he calls a $30,000 per month deficit in the operation of the county's Jack Harwell Detention Center, which he calls "a jail it never needed," and a $49 million project built with revenue bonds issued by the Commissioners' Court and operated by a private New Jersey corporation, Community Education Centers.

Judge Lewis, on the other hand, says the jail's operation costs taxpayers nothing because it is financed with fees paid for the incarceration of prisoners from other jurisdictions that can't handle the overflow of the jails' capacity as set by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards due to overcrowding.

The problem, simple enough to understand, yet oh, so costly, is that the predicted overflow did not materialize. Obviously, other counties facing the overhead cost of paying to house prisoners elsewhere are finding alternatives to jailing every potential prisoner who comes down the pike.

McLennan County Sheriff Larry Lynch receives a $1,000 per month stipend that is ostensibly funded by CEC, the private corporation that operates the detention center.

In the Criminal District Attorney race, two offenders charged with multiple offenses of aggravated sexual assault were released on their personal recognizance due to a delay in prosecution. Republican challenger Abel Reyna is beginning to question the release of serious offenders due to a lack or declination to prosecute.

In one case, District Attorney John Segrest declined prosecution because the staff was facing a delay of up to 9 months to obtain DNA evidence against the alleged offender, a man who had already been locked up for a little more than 90 days without the return of a Grand Jury Indictment.

In another case, a man accused of attempted capital murder of a Robinson car dealer was released on his personal recognizance following a stabbing attack that left the victim hospitalized for a week with a brain injury caused by the penetration of his skull.

DPS Crime lab supervisors are running a minimum of an 8-month backlog in such cases.

In the other, a man accused of multiple offenses of aggravated sexual assault of a female less than 14 years of age was released on his personal recognizance and let out of jail with no cash bond fee put up because of a similar problem. Released on an application for a writ of habeas corpus, it was not until he had been indicted for the 8 counts of sexual assault and an additional count of ongoing sexual abuse of a child that he was returned to custody.

In both cases, hard economic times are dictating a long, close look by voters at just how they want to handle some very serious issues in a time of very limited resources.

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