Monday, November 19, 2007

Marc Levin: What should Harris County do now that jail bonds have failed?

Kuff points to an article by Marc Levin of th Texas Public Policy Foundation in the Houston Chronicle ("How to survive without new jails," Nov. 17) suggesting alternatives for Harris County officials after their recent jail bonds failed at the ballot box by a narrow 51-49 margin. Marc's article details many of the most most obvious solutions to Harris County's jail overcrowding problem:

A new Texas law allows law enforcement officers the discretion to issue citations, instead of making an arrest, for some of the lowest-level misdemeanors.

Issuing citations with notices to appear does not reduce the ultimate punishment for these offenses, which include driving without a license and possession of an ounce of marijuana, but it could divert tens of thousands of these pretrial detainees from the Harris County Jail every year. This also keeps more police on the beat when officers are spared the three- to four-hour process of booking a suspect into jail.

The Sheriffs' Association of Texas and the Combined Law Enforcement Association of Texas both supported this law. While other counties are successfully implementing it, Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal has said he will not prosecute cases in which police issued citations for such offenses. Law enforcement agencies and officers in Harris County should be able to exercise the discretion given to them by the Texas Legislature with confidence that the citations they issue will be fully prosecuted.

As of Oct. 1, the Harris County Jail's inmate population included about 1,000 first-time offenders — more than four times any other county — serving sentences for possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance. A 2003 state law mandates probation for these state jail felony offenders, but Harris County prosecutors have instead invoked another law that allows them to reduce the felony charge to a Class A misdemeanor, which still allows up to one year of county jail time on local taxpayers' dime.

As of Sept. 20, another 411 inmates in the Harris County Jail awaited trial on misdemeanors. Many have no prior offenses but cannot afford to post bail. If the person is not a flight risk, they should be offered a less costly personal bond. Public safety, not an offender's financial means, should guide public policy.

Jail overcrowding can also be reduced by offering victim-offender mediation for first-time, nonviolent property offenders. A survey of burglary victims found that 81 percent wanted restitution, but only 41 percent wanted the offender jailed. The victim and the offender can voluntarily choose to enter an agreement for the offender to make restitution and perform community service in lieu of jail time.

It's certainly not for every offender or type of offense, but it makes sense in cases like graffiti and stealing a compact disc from a car.

Probation reform can also reduce jail overcrowding. Currently, 43 percent of offenders charged with misdemeanors for first- or second-time drunk driving choose the Harris County Jail over probation. As odd as that seems, it allows them to avoid probation fees and end their case in a month or two instead of two years. One way to encourage more offenders to choose probation would be to increase the availability of early termination for probationers who have fulfilled all their terms and whose conduct has been exemplary.

Be sure to read the rest because Marc's discussion is exactly the type of policy debate that should have occurred BEFORE Houston voters were asked to decide the question. Proposing expensive jail building projects that require new tax increases, as in Harris and Smith Counties in earlier this month, should be a last resort, suggested only after counties, including elected judges and DAs, have used other tools at their disposal to reduce local overincarceration.

Charles Kuffner summed up the overall message to take from Levin's column, so rather than seek to come up with a more clever denouement, I'll end quoting Kuff's observation: "We are not in this situation by fate. We are in this situation by choice. We can choose to do things differently, and in doing so we can allocate our scarce resources more efficiently. It really is that simple."

Let's hope Harris County officials accept that simple message from the voters as the '08 election season looms before us.


Exploring alternatives to local jail building

Harris County Jail Overcrowding
HB 2391 - Cite and Summons for Low-level Misdemeanors

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