In both Harris and Smith counties, the Sheriffs and local PDs refused to allow their officers to use new discretion created this year by the Legislature to issue a summons instead of making an arrest for certain low-level, nonviolent offenses. Under HB 2391, signed into law by the Governor earlier this year, officers can choose to give tickets instead arresting people suspected of:
- Marijuana possession, (up to 4 oz)
- Criminal mischief with less than $500 damage
- Graffiti with less than $500 damage
- Theft by check with less than $500 stolen
- Theft of service with less than $500 stolen
- Contraband in a corrections facility (B misd. only)
- Driving With an Invalid License
In San Antonio, Bexar DA Susan Reed blocked the law's implementation, even though it would have saved the county more than $10,000 per day. In Harris County (Houston), DA Chuck Rosenthal announced he would use his prosecutorial discretion to refuse cases where officers exercised this new authority, undermining any possible use in that jurisdiction.
Rosenthal should now back off that position, and both county sheriffs and local police departments in Harris and Smith counties should reconsider their refusal to exercise this new authority. Ignoring the only tool given you to reduce overcrowding while simultaneously paying other counties to house local offenders doesn't make economic or political sense.
In Tyler, Judge Cynthia Kent came up with a slew of proposals after the last Smith County jail bond defeat to reduce overincarceration through alternatives and strengthened probation, but the county commissioners court only funded one of the long litany of ideas suggested in her plan. The new day reporting center has been a huge success, but by itself it's not enough. Smith County commissioners should go back to Judge Kent, hat in hand, and ask her to provide leadership to face the county's overincarceration problem head on. (UPDATE: Smith County Judge Joel Baker emails to add that the commissioners court also recently funded a new drug court and a special court for expedited cases, both of which were among Judge Kent's suggestions; I apologize for the omission.)
Both Smith and Harris counties need their judges to do more to reduce pretrial detention, particularly for non-violent misdemeanants and state jail felons. The purpose of pretrial detention is not to assist prosecutors in extracting a guilty plea. Both counties jurists need to rely more heavily on recommendations from their pretrial services divisions, which exist to recommend offenders who are good candidates for release on low bail or personal bond, but whose recommendations in practice in both counties are routinely ignored.
Now Harris and Smith counties have no choice. For the time being jail building is off the table, so all there is to do is seek community-based solutions and strengthen probation supervision. And they'd better get started soon. In fact, both counties should have started those initiatives a long time ago. Then voters might have more confidence that they'd exhausted all their alternatives before proposing hundreds of millions in new debt.
RELATED: Exploring alternatives to local jail building
- Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part One
- Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part Two
- Texans' taxation revulsion vs. their Incarceration Addiction: Which will prevail on county jail building?
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