Proponents of building a new jail in Harris County like to point out that nearly 20% of Harris County's approximately 11,730 jail inmates either sleep on "transitional" cots on the floor or in leased space in Louisiana.
However a big portion of those extra inmates don't really need to be there, and the tab (in jail costs) for Houston judges' insistence on jailing them is rising. The Harris commissioners court this week approved a $15 million contract to move another 1,000 Houston inmates to the Bayou State, reported the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County rejects leasing Galveston jail, June 4"):
the Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved one-year contracts with three Louisiana parishes to house up to 1,000 inmates at a cost of up to $15 million. The county already pays a private facility in northeast Louisiana to hold up to 730 prisoners. ...It's interesting to me that the next private prison contract will house 1,000 inmates. That's nearly exactly the number of first offender drug defendants incarcerated in Harris County who judges ordered into county jail as a condition of probation. Five years ago the Legislature changed state jail felony sentences so that that drug defendants convicted of possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance (besides pot) would receive probation and treatment instead of prison term. In Harris County, judges have used their discretion to send those defendants to county jail for up to six months as a condition of their probation.
County leaders will discuss options for permanently easing jail overcrowding at a meeting on capital improvement projects later this month and at its mid-year budget review in September, Budget Officer Dick Raycraft said. ...
As of Tuesday, about 11,000 inmates were being held in Harris County Jail facilities. The jail is certified to hold 9,400 inmates, but the county has the state's permission to temporarily hold 2,000 more on "variance beds," nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor.
According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (pdf), 1,102 state jail felons were sentenced to county jail terms as a probation condition as of May 1 - more than the number of new private beds for which the county just contracted. In other words, that extra thousand beds would not be needed if it weren't for discretionary use of the jail by Harris judges, who're thumbing their noses at the Legislature's treatment priorities.
The other big source of Harris jail overcrowding can also be laid at the feet of district judges. Statewide, according to Dr. Tony Fabelo, overall jail population increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, while the number of pretrial detainees increased 49.2% over the same period. Harris County led the state's largest counties with the biggest increase both in raw numbers and by percentage.
The Houston Chronicle reported in April that use of personal bonds in lieu of bail continues to decline in recent years despite the jail overcrowding problem. In Harris County, use of personal bonds for felony offenses declined more than 94% between 1994 and 2004.
Meanwhile, now-retired DA Chuck Rosenthal refused to allow police to use new authority created by the Legislature to give citations instead of arresting for certain low-level misdemeanors, a measure aimed at reducing jail overcrowding and keeping more cops on the beat. Every unnecessary arrest for such offenses amounts to increased jail costs that could have been avoided.
When local judges and the DA aren't using tools available to them to stop overcrowding without jeopardizing public safety, taxpayers have no one but their elected officials to blame for all the extra costs. If those elected officials won't fix the problem, voters will get a chance in November at the ballot box to find new people who will.
MORE: From Texas Prison Bidness.