Saturday, May 06, 2006

Harris Sheriff appeals overincarceration ruling

Kuff has the word on Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas' appeal of the ruling by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards that he relocate 500 prisoners to leased beds, wondering aloud why Thomas didn't confront the problem before now. He points to a Houston Chronicle story ("Sheriff appealing order, won't transfer inmates," 5-6) where officials have already begun pointing fingers:

[Sheriff] Thomas also accused Harris County judges and the District Attorney's Office of circumventing state law by allowing nonviolent offenders to negotiate plea agreements enabling them to serve sentences in the county jail rather than in state facilities.

"It just defeats the whole purpose of the state-jail felony," Thomas said.

Blame game or not, he's right about this one. I wrote here about the controversy Thomas is talking about - the Harris County DA and district judges are using a loophole to incarcerate hundreds of offenders who should be eligibile for probation and drug treatment. The Houston Chronicle explained the problem last summer:
The Legislature adopted a law in 2003 requiring that, in any state jail felony for possession of a small amount of drugs, the judge should suspend the jail time and place the offender in a community supervision and drug treatment program.

However, according to the ACLU study, judges in Harris County have exploited a provision in the law that allows them to send those felons to county jail rather than state jail.

"Using this loophole, a court can avoid the Legislature's intent to move low-level drug possessors into treatment rather than incarceration, and put the entire burden for such a dodge on the county," states the report. "Only one county is choosing to lock away a large number of state jail felons in county jail, rather than place them in a community supervision program: Harris County."

"It's become more and more clear that it's actually the judges' sentencing practices that are causing overcrowding," said the ACLU's Ann del Llano.
I've written before there are many sources of overincarceration pressure facing the Harris County jail, including arrestees' reduced access to personal bonds and guard shortages. But this one fix - sentencing first-time, low-level drug possession offenders to probation and treatment instead of jail time - would free up more than enough space to satisfy the Jail Commission.

See also:


Anonymous said...

""It's become more and more clear that it's actually the judges' sentencing practices that are causing overcrowding," said the ACLU's Ann del Llano."

Actually, I think it may be the amount of people who insist on breaking the law that is the major cause of jail overcrowding.

Cry me a river.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I assume your anonymous comments demanding that taxes be raised to pay for jailing low-level, non-violent offenders are being left elsewhere.

Anonymous said...

That first guy doesn't know what he's talking about. Take it from me, LOTS of people in the Houston jail don't need to be there. Not just state jail probationers, either, but loads of non-violent people who just can't make bail.

When somebody is caught with low-level possession (remember this law only applies to less than a gram of powder), that's a mistake that may need punishnig. But to incarcerate that person and make them lose their job, plus get a felony record that keeps them from getting another one, then the law is doing more harm to society than good. Those judges should be ashamed of themselves - they're ruining lives.