It's been clear for a while now what policies the county needs to implement to reduce overcrowding, but I don't think they can happen unless voters oust judges who refuse to stop requiring high bail for low-level crimes, not to mention the Chuck-Rosenthal era prosecutorial leadership that's spearheaded policies that overuse the jail.
The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County may send 1,100 more prisoners to a private facility in Louisiana, joining 600 already housed in contract beds in the Bayou State. According to the Chron ("Harris County may send more inmates out of state," May 6):
the sheriff's department is asking Commissioners Court for permission to send another 1,130 more inmates to Louisiana facilities.For the most part, this is a self-inflicted wound. Big chunks of these inmates don't need to be there. Consultants hired by the county awhile back found that judges have all but quit using personal bonds for many defendants, even where flight risk and the likelihood of re-offending is low.
Harris County already incarcerates 600 inmates at a private detention center in northeast Louisiana at a cost of $9 million a year.
The proposal on today's agenda calls for sending 130 more inmates to that facility and negotiating with other lockups for another 1,000 beds on an as-needed basis. At $38 per inmate per day, those additions could bring the annual cost for incarcerating inmates outside Harris County to $24 million.
As of Monday, a little more than 11,000 inmates were being housed in the jail's four facilities, sheriff's department spokesman Capt. John Martin said.
The Harris County Jail is certified to hold a maximum of 9,400 inmates. The state jail commission temporarily has authorized the detention of 2,000 more inmates on so-called "variance beds," nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor. The county originally was granted permission for 1,000 extra bunks last year, but has had to ask for increases several times in the past year, Martin added.
"We're very rapidly approaching maximum capacity," he said.
The Harris DA's office charges felony drug possession when police find paraphernalia with drug residue, though elsewhere such charges get a Class C misdemeanor, i.e., a fine-only ticket. This not only fills up the jails, it needlessly floods the crime lab with petty cases, and state jails with offenders who dont need to be there. Meanwhile, the Sheriff wants to jail more illegal immigrants, and local law enforcement has not utilized new authority to issue citations for certain low-level misdemeanants instead of arresting them.
For these reasons and more, the rise in inmate numbers per se isn't all the Sheriff's fault, but his nonchalant mismanagement has sure contributed to the crisis. The biggest issue for Harris County isn't actually finding jail space, it's finding enough guards to staff its facilities, the Chron reports:
Between $29 million last year in overtime costs, and as much as $33 million per year in lease payments to a private prison - that's around $62 million Harris taxpayers will fork over in the next year that's attributable to understaffing. (Simply hiring enough warm bodies to fully staff facilities can reduce jail costs tremendously.) Bottom line: Sheriff Thomas doesn't employ enough jailers, partially because the county commissioners court hasn't authorized enough, and partly because few people want the job at prevailing wages.
To meet staffing requirements, the Sheriff's Office spent $29 million for overtime at the jail in the fiscal year that ended in February. Most guards are working double shifts more than once a week, Martin said, raising concerns about their health and safety.
"It's a huge concern for us the number of hours that people can physically work without just becoming burnt out or before they get to a point where they're not really as aware as we need for them to be on the job," he said.
Sending more inmates to Louisiana would help offset the amount of overtime the department has to pay and reduce wear and tear on county facilities, Martin said. Leasing space in a similar facility in Texas would cost $45 to $55 per inmate per day, Martin added.
For those reasons, I don't think Harris County can build its way out of the problem, since new jail construction merely add beds the county can't staff at the minimum 48-1 ratio. Spending more than $60 million per year on crisis-type solutions makes no more sense than building jails the county can't staff.
Voters were right IMO to reject a new jail when the Sheriff can't staff or manage the one he's got, particularly when the elected DA and judges are misusing it to incarcerate too many low-level offenders. Commissioner Garcia is spot on that the solutions lie in re-examining the process, not throwing more money at the problem.
Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said the proposal [to lease beds in Louisiana] appears to be the only viable option. But she said she also thinks there needs to be a full-scale review of the criminal justice system, from arrest and booking to prosecution and sentencing.
"That's a lot of money for short-term solutions," she said.
The county plans to build a 1,100-bed facility in Atascocita, but officials still are examining that proposal.
Last November, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail in the downtown jail complex.
Commissioner Jerry Eversole said the county has to be wary of building facilities to accommodate its summer jail population since the number of inmates usually falls later in the year.
As long as Sheriff Thomas, Chuck Rosenthal, and Houston's current crop of ex-prosecutor judges runs the show, however, such a review would be pointless. The problems were identified years ago, the solutions all proposed, but if the elected people currently in charge won't embrace them, what can you do?
Kuff has more.
Related Grits posts:
- DOJ investigating Harris County Jail
- Marc Levin: What should Harris County do now that jail bonds have failed?
- Counties that rejected new jails must now get serious about diversion
- Pretrial detention, unnecessary incarceration driving Texas jail overcrowding
- Bail blunders boost bulging Harris jail population
- Extra bail conditions: When tough on crime means tough on taxpayers
- Should county government subsidize bail bond companies?
- Lack of counsel, information are bail barriers
- Harris County detains low-risk offenders for no reason
- Homegrown Harris Jail Jam: Jailed probationers swell inmate numbers
- Harris revokes probation most among big Texas counties
- TPPF: Counties must act to prevent overincarceration
- JPI report illuminates causes of Harris jail overcrowding
- Harris County officials wrongly think they'll build their way out of jail overcrowding
- Harris Sheriff makes jail overcrowding worse with optional immigration inmates
- Sheriff disingenuous to claim no cost for jailing immigrants