For $38K and Counting, John Wiley Price Is More than Happy to Jail Dallas' Panhandlers

Dallas police have stepped up enforcement efforts against panhandlers; this man got away with a citation.EXPAND
Dallas police have stepped up enforcement efforts against panhandlers; this man got away with a citation.
Eric Nicholson

At 10 a.m. Friday, Dallas police Assistant Chief Gary Tittle briefed the media on the results of the department's 12-day-old downtown panhandling crackdown. As of Thursday, cops had made 128 arrests as part of the initiative, which downtown inhabitants say has already had a dramatic impact:

On Wednesday, commercial real estate developer and downtown activist Tanya Ragan showed her appreciation by treating several dozen officers to pizza.

At the same time that Tittle was giving his update at DPD headquarters, officials from perhaps a dozen arms of county government were huddled two miles away in the bowels of the Frank Crowley Courts Building to hash out ways to keep as many people as possible out of Dallas County's jail. Led by Commissioner John Wiley Price, the Jail Population Committee has been doing this every month for years.

A lot of the group's energy is spent ironing out arcane procedural wrinkles, maybe tweaking transfer protocols with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to reduce the number of days felons wait in jail post-conviction or lobbying judges to let more nonviolent offenders leave jail without posting a cash bond. The committee also works to influence some of the more obvious drivers of the jail population, chief among them the number of suspects local police departments bring there in the first place.

It would stand to reason, then, that Price would be troubled that DPD was stuffing the jail with panhandlers, and at the start of the week he was. But by the jail population meeting on Friday morning, he was surprisingly upbeat. "I'm OK if they're OK," he said, shrugging.

Price's about-face came midweek, when he examined the agreement between the city of Dallas and Dallas County governing the operation of the Lew Sterrett Justice Center. According to county budget director Ryan Brown, the city must pay the county $314.50 for each inmate it books into jail without a warrant. It has to pay an extra $69.38 for every night the suspect stays in jail. Using DPD's figures (128 arrested panhandlers minus 19 who had outstanding warrants), the city's baseline out-of-pocket cost for the crackdown's first 11 days is a bit more than $34,000. Brown says inmates charged with class C misdemeanors like panhandling are typically released as soon as they're seen by a city magistrate, which happens twice a day, and that their average length of stay for such offenses is about 10 hours. Assuming that half of the panhandlers have to spend the night before they see a magistrate, that comes to around an additional $4,000.

The county's figures suggests that the crackdown might be even costlier than DPD's numbers indicate. There were 263 more Class C misdemeanor suspects booked into Lew Sterrett in the first two weeks of February than in the last two weeks of January. Some of that might be due to normal week-to-week variation, but the only significant difference between the two periods is that for the latter Dallas cops were aggressively making Class C misdemeanor arrests. And none of that takes into account the time officers spend taking panhandlers to jail or the extra resources DPD has poured into its initiative.

Whatever the specific dollar figure, the city is rapidly accumulating a hefty tab. Given the in-and-out nature of Class C arrests, Price wondered if the county might not be making a small profit from DPD's crackdown, which he's fine with. "If they want to run that train, that's OK."

Of course, the in-and-out nature of those arrests also means that the impacts of the crackdown will last only as long as the crackdown itself. Darryl Davis, downtown's most notorious panhandler, is a prime example. Municipal court records show that he's been picked up three times during DPD's panhandling crackdown. Twenty minutes before the jail population meeting he was walking down Main Street asking passersby for money. (He declined to speak with a reporter.)

Lynn Pride Richardson, who leads the Dallas County Public Defender's Office, suggested using the panhandling crackdown as a chance to address suspects' underlying mental health or substance abuse issues. "As a system, we need to look at maybe this is an opportunity to capture those individuals and put them in programs," she said.

Everyone in the room agreed that this was a great idea; they also agreed it was a pipe dream.

"I don't know if we've got significant enough ... resources to be able to deal with it," Price said.


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