As has been discussed on Grits many times (see below), Harris County's main jail overcrowding problem stems from radical increases pretrial detention: "The number of people in [the Harris County] jail who are awaiting trial has grown by about 64 prisoners a month for the past two years and has more than doubled since 2001," reported the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County taking action to reduce jail overcrowding," Jan. 24).
The shortest distance between the two points would be for judges to reduce reliance on bail bondsmen and issue more personal bonds for petty offenders:
The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail.The new judges and District Attorney Pat Lykos also hope the new mental health court just established will help with the problem of mentally ill "frequent flyers" soaking up jail space and resources:
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the article is the idea that officials are taking this issue seriously at all.
The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or trespassing.
New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and counseling.
For years the only response we ever heard from Harris County pols in response to jail overcrowding was "build, baby, build." Now, though, that approach has become financially untenable; even "Former Sheriff Tommy Thomas postponed plans to build a new 1,100-bed jail in Atascocita amid concerns he would not be able to fully staff the facility." Now, Maj. Smith says he doesn’t "think we can build our way out of the overcrowding issue."
Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for reducing the inmate population.
“That’s the ultimate answer — to get some of these people out of the jail and into other locales or in the free world where they’re under monitored supervision or enhanced bonding,” Smith said.
With new judges, a new DA and a new Sheriff, there's reason for optimism, to be certain, but the changes in bail policy are all prospective - nothing's happened yet:
Criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett said he has not seen signs of a policy shift, but is optimistic one is coming. Holding defendants who pose no threat of hurting someone or fleeing keeps them from going to work and caring for their families, he said. A lot of people plead guilty just to get out of jail quickly, including some who probably are innocent, he added.Still, the discussion among key players seems more constructive and on point than in the past. There's little doubt they're focused on categories of offenders - pretrial detainees and the mentally ill - where Harris County's "tuff on crime" tactics have been needlessly tough on taxpayers without a commensurate improvement in public safety.
Related Grits posts:
- 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
- What they're reading at the Harris County probation department
- Pretrial detention, unnecessary incarceration driving Texas jail overcrowding
- Counties that rejected new jails must now get serious about diversion
- Homegrown Harris Jail Jam: Jailed probationers swell inmate numbers
- Harris revokes probation most among big Texas counties
- DOJ investigating Harris County Jail
- Harris County officials wrongly think they'll build their way out of jail overcrowding
- Mental health courts: A strategy that works?
- Prevention, punishment, mental illness and crime
- Mental health court primer
- Smith County will create pilot mental health court
- Grayson County will apply to create mental health court
- Federal bill backing mental health courts a teaspoon of remedy for an oceanic problem