Because Harris County prosecutors and judges have been using a legal loophole to incarcerate low-level drug offenders who should be receiving drug treatment. A Texas state law passed in 2003 required judges to sentence first-time, low-level drug offenders to probation and treatment instead of state jail. Harris County prosecutors, though, relied on another provision of the law to impose up to six months incarceration in the county jail as a condition of probation.
Since that 2003 law passed, according to the ACLU of Texas Prison and Jail Accountability Project, the number of state jail felons sentenced to county jail as a condition of their probation increased by 188% (Word document).
No wonder the Harris County jail is full! They're choosing to incarcerate people at their own expense who the Legislature thought should receive cheaper and more effective drug treatment options. That makes it a homegrown problem, which will now require a homegrown solution: Governor Perry recently vetoed legislation that would have closed the loophole. (See Solutions for Texas and Kuff for more. UPDATE: New Kuff post Saturday.)
Top 10 Counties by number
of State Jail Felons (6/1/05)
Source: ACLU of Texas Prison and Jail
State Jail Felons Sentenced to
Total for all 254 Texas Counties
% of Total in
For more information on the roots of Harris County Jail's overincarceration crisis, see Grits' Harris 'bail and jail' series linked here.