The county's justice system is taking a longer look at setting bail for inmates with serious medical conditions this year -- so that judges can weigh a person's flight risk against his health risk. And County Controller Mark Patrick Flaherty says it's already paying off.
Whenever someone is incarcerated in the county jail, "The taxpayers are responsible for the health care," Flaherty says. If inmates require hospitalization, the jail is responsible for transporting and guarding them -- racking up overtime charges and other fees, all paid by the public.
"That's not cheap," says Ray Billotte, the district court administrator.
So when inmates arrive, Billotte says, "The jail is now much more aggressive in looking at these folks" and assessing whether they have special medical needs. If so, that information is passed along to the judge in charge of setting bail until the inmate is tried on criminal charges. If a judge knows that a prisoner might incur steep medical costs, the judge can lower bail or else remove a detainer, a court order that would otherwise keep an inmate in jail.
Flaherty estimates the policy has saved the county roughly $300,000 so far this year.
"The No. 1 concern is the safety of the public," Billotte stresses. The policy is only used to set bail for people who have been charged with, but not convicted of, an offense. And in setting bail, Billotte says, "I'm sure a judge would consider if the defendant has used firearms," for example.
"We are able to screen out people who are in dire need of health care more than they are in need of being in jail," says Flaherty. "It's really the result of the court system, the jail, the health department, all working together to properly screen out potential inmates that may be a problem."
Billotte says the policy isn't entirely new. Since 2006, the court's pretrial services system has been doing its own risk assessments to determine the threat of releasing someone from custody. But "There's never been any written policy" about how to weigh the factors, Billotte says.
Ramon Rustin, the warden for the county lock-up, agrees that there's nothing new about collecting this information. "What we did recently was develop criteria for both [the courts and the jail] to make a decision."
That's not to say judges will necessarily follow the criteria in making a decision. Which is as it should be, Flaherty says: "We did not want to interfere with a judicial determination."
Still, the controller is happy to take cost-saving measures wherever he can get them. In his annual financial report, Flaherty announced that the cost of operating the jail rose $4.2 million last year, to $53.6 million.
"The jail is typically $3 or $4 million over budget," he adds. Fixing that is "not going to come with one fell swoop. ... It's going to come in stages like this, of looking at everything."