The Travis County Jail averages fewer than 2 erroneous releases a year. Bexar County had 2 in 13 hours.
Sheriff Javier Salazar blames issue on unfamiliar processes, human error and simple negligence
TRAVIS COUNTY, Texas – Jail inmates are being erroneously released at a far lesser rate in Travis County compared to Bexar County, a months-long investigation from the KSAT 12 Defenders found.
Records show that from 2009-2018, only 18 inmates were inadvertently released from the Travis County Jail. That total matches the number of inmates incorrectly released from the Bexar County Jail from the start of this year through late October, according to data provided by BCSO detailing the 16 incidents. During that same time frame of less than 10 months, the Travis County Jail only had three inadvertent releases.
The Defenders were unable to conduct additional year-to-year comparisons between the two facilities because BCSO did not begin tracking erroneous releases until November 2017. Over the decade, the two county jails have processed tens of thousands of people each year.
Additionally, 24 inmates were erroneously released from the Travis County Correctional Complex — a separate detention center that holds inmates for longer periods of time — from the start of 2011 to present, putting that facility’s average at under three erroneous releases per year.
Travis County did not begin keeping detailed, accurate statistics on inadvertent releases at the correctional complex until 2011, officials said.
“We take our responsibilities extremely seriously. Keeping our community safe is our fundamental responsibility,” said Major Sally Pena, jail administrator for the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.
Jail officials there credited the low figures at the downtown jail and the correctional complex near the airport, where inmates are taken if they are in custody 72 hours or longer, on a two-person system for checking a suspect’s file.
“It’s human beings that are reviewing the paperwork. And one typo can mean a difference between a mistake or not,” said Captain Maria Velasquez. “Having that second person has really made a difference in reducing our amount of errors.”
“We keep it simple in that it’s an inadvertent release. A person should not have been released from custody. Let’s get to the bottom of it,” said Pena, a 29-year veteran of TCSO who started as a booking officer and rose through the ranks.
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Travis County and Bexar County used to book a similar number of inmates each year, according to records released by both counties.
However, the numbers of bookings in Travis County dropped more than 30 percent between 2011 and 2018, to a low of 41,330 people last year.
Bexar County, which released its figures based on fiscal year, processed more than 60,000 inmates for FY 2018-19.
Incredibly, erroneous releases appear to be a relatively new problem for BCSO, as its own records indicate the jail only had one incorrect release in all of 2018.
Starting with the retirement of Deputy Chief Laura Balditt in April 2018, BCSO has experienced a significant amount of turnover and shifting of duties within its jail administration.
On October 31, while the Defenders were in Austin to interview Travis County jail administration officials for this story, Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar was introducing his latest jail administrator, Deputy Chief Jaime Rios.
Rios, according to records compiled by the Defenders, is the sixth person to hold the title of jail chief in the past 18 months.
Rios told the assembled media, “Same problems you’re going to have here you will have in Harris County, you will have in Tarrant County, you have in Travis. You’re going to have the same issues, the same problems.”
Problems with erroneous releases at the jail appeared to apex a month earlier, in September, when inmates Esequiel Hernandez and Erica Morales were mistakenly released in separate incidents on the same day, 13 hours apart.
Hernandez was released before the necessary arrangements with Haven for Hope could be made, while Morales was released after a jail staffer attached incorrect bond documents to her paperwork.
Both suspects were later taken back into custody.
The Defenders requested an on-camera interview with Salazar for this story. A BCSO spokesman then asked via email for the Defenders to provide questions for the sheriff ahead of time. After the Defenders refused the request, Salazar instead released the following written statement:
As an agency we are constantly implementing new policies and procedures in an effort to prevent negligent releases from occurring at the Bexar County Adult Detention Center.
Several of the recent mistakes have been due to new/unfamiliar processes, human error, and in some cases simple negligence. In each instance, we have faced those challenges head on with transparency, and have made the necessary policy changes when needed, to include taking disciplinary actions and implementing training.
We have implemented a ‘Booking 101’ training for all booking staff, in addition to assuring ongoing training moving forward. We are in the process of implementing technology which will aid in tracking inmates during the booking/release process. Additionally, our new Deputy Chief, Jaime Rios, has been assigned to Compliance and Support. Monitoring booking more closely, and assuring proper training of all personnel is his number one priority. As Sheriff, my staff and I remain committed to doing whatever it takes to protect and serve the residents of Bexar County.
Jail vs. Central Magistrate’s Office
The Defenders also requested records on erroneous releases from the Central Magistrate’s Office, which was jointly run by the city of San Antonio and Bexar County until late last year.
Since 2009, only three inmates have been erroneously released from the facility.
In two of the three incidents, the release of an evading arrest suspect in 2014 and the release of an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon suspect in 2017, the errors were blamed on BCSO personnel assigned to the facility.
The impact on staffing
When inmate Mitchell Boren was erroneously released in October, he was not tracked down for nearly eight hours, records show.
A BCSO dispatch log indicates that at least five deputies, including some taken from both East and West Patrol, were ordered to search for Boren after he was inadvertently released and remained on that assignment for well over two hours, until Boren was taken back into custody.
See a timeline of incidents at the jail below.
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