I've gotta say, it seems like the terms of debate on criminal justice topics may be shifting when a major daily is editorializing the Legislature is "to blame" for increasing criminal penalties. For years many in the MSM, including at the Chronicle, have been cheerleaders for heightened criminal penalties as a solution to nearly every social ill, so perhaps we're witnessing what would be a welcome pivot in conventional wisdom.
A large part of the jail overcrowding problem resides with the elected judges here. They don't make good use of pre-trial release and other jail diversion programs that allow minor, nonviolent offenders to return to their jobs and families while awaiting trial.
Some judges set up defendants to fail, making the terms of their probation so onerous that successful completion is unlikely. A minor infraction can send a probationer back to jail and then to prison to serve a long sentence.
The Legislature is also to blame. Over the years it has made too many minor offenses felonies. Judges are allowed to set high, unattainable bail, dooming many indigent inmates to months or years of jail time before they have a chance to make their case in court.
Voters in November rejected a bond issue to expand the jail by 2,500 beds, rejecting the notion of placing more Harris County residents needlessly and pointlessly behind bars. That leaves the criminal justice system here with the duty to reduce jail overcrowding by decreasing the number of inmates.
"Lock 'em up" is never the end of the conversation, especially for county jails. The next question is inevitably, "then what?" Maybe once the media begins asking it regularly, elected officials will follow suit.
Related Grits posts:
- Counties that rejected new jails now must get serious about diversion
- Levin: What should Harris County do now that jail bonds have failed?
- Texans' taxation revulsion vs. their Incarceration Addiction: Which will prevail on county jail building?
- What they're reading at the Harris County probation department (2005 series)
- Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part One
- Grits' best practices to reduce county jail overcrowding, Part Two