The article focuses in on an issue frequently highlighted here on Grits - Harris County judges' failure to make greater use of personal bonds:
More than half of the 11,500 inmates crammed into the Harris County Jail have not yet been found guilty of a crime but await their day in court confined with convicted criminals in conditions that repeatedly flunk state and federal safety inspections.
The most common accusation against them: possession of a crack pipe or minuscule amount of drugs.
Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, at least 500 county inmates have been locked up for more than a year as they wait to be judged, according to an analysis of inmate data by the Houston Chronicle.
About 1,200 have been jailed six months or more though many face only minor felony charges, such as bouncing checks, credit card fraud, trespassing or even civil violations. In fact, around 200 inmates, theoretically innocent until proven guilty, appear to already have served more than the minimum sentence for the crime they allegedly committed, based on the newspaper's analysis of inmate data provided by the Harris County Sheriff's Office.
Pretrial detention is exactly where the debate over Harris County jail overcrowding should be centered. I'm quite glad to see media coverage focused on the root causes of jail overcrowding instead of just stopgap measures to accommodate it.
Only a handful of accused felons — just 376 out of more than 38,000 cases last year — get released before trial based on their own pledge to appear when required, according to reports from the county's own Pretrial Services program. That's a tiny fraction of the 14,966 people who scored as low risk in pretrial interviews last year, one of the major factors judges consider in making bonding decisions. As a result, many people who can't afford to post bail simply stay in jail, including some accused only of misdemeanors. ...
In all, thousands of inmates accused of nonviolent crimes but not yet convicted remain packed into cells so crowded that many sleep on mattresses on the floor. Others are shipped to overflow cells that Harris County rents 387 miles away in Epps, La., at a cost of $9 million last year.
“That's one of the ... biggest travesties,” said Mark Hochglaube, a Houston attorney who has studied the problem as part of a county committee on indigent defense. Even a person who claims innocence, Hochglaube argues, when faced with the possibility of being locked up for months before getting to trial, will likely plead guilty because first offenders often can get out sooner if they don't fight.
See related Grits posts:
- Judges have tools to reduce Harris jail overcrowding if they'll use them
- Shipping inmates to other counties won't lower Harris jail population, just scatter it
- Can 'czar' help Harris jail overcrowding?
- DOJ: Harris County jail fails to meet minimum constitutional standards
- 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