Thursday, August 13, 2009

Shipping inmates to other counties won't 'lower' Harris jail population, just scatter it

Given that the Harris County Jail has been overcrowded for years and the feds are about to sue them for failing to meet minimum constitutional standards, I don't have a problem on its face with rookie Democratic Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia's decision to ship more inmates to other counties. Indeed, in the short term he essentially has no choice.

Commissioner Steve Radack told the Houston Chronicle Harris County could capitalize on the misfortunes of counties, in that "many times it's going to be cheaper to go to someone else who needs the income because they have overbuilt the capacity of their jail, and they need the money. They need to pay their bonds, their debt, and they're out looking." Regular readers know that's certainly happened in some places.

However I don't like to see this action framed as a way to "lower the population in the Harris County Jail." That's not really what's happening, they're just spreading the jail population via contract all around Southeast Texas and Western Louisiana. They still incarcerate just as many people and the Sheriff is responsible for the inmates no matter where they are. This won't "reduce" the overall jail population in a meaningful sense, and it shouldn't be viewed as an excuse to avoid making more meaningful changes.

Privatizing this much of the jail population also calls into question how much Harris County must invest in contract oversight. That's an oft-overlooked aspect of decisions to send inmates elsewhere, but given what's happened in some jails you can't just cut a check every month and forget about them.

Actually reducing the jail population is ultimately a task for judges, but Garcia could help the matter by authorizing his deputies to exercise new authority granted to them in 2007 to issue citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, non-violent offenses. Houston PD should begin using the same authority.

I also found it particularly odd to read that Garcia "acknowledged the transfers may initially pose a hardship for families of local inmates, but said they eventually were going to have to make arrangements to visit their loved ones in state prisons." For starters, those being held pretrial haven't been convicted and retain a presumption of innocence, while others to be shipped out include those serving county sentences who won't go to prison. So that statement doesn't really apply to everybody this decision will affect.

Until officials use all the means available to them to combat overcrowding, it's a hard pill to swallow for taxpayers to pay for beds in other counties or be asked to pay for more jail space.

Others bear responsibility, too, besides the Sheriff. Judges are still setting bail too high and overusing the jail, the new DA's DWI policy seems oblivious to overcrowding issues, and the commissioners court has not adequately funded community based alternatives for the mentally ill.

But Sheriff Garcia's response to the problem so far has been to reject tools that could reduce unnecessary incarceration and simply call for more jail building, a stance that essentially mimics his Republican predecessor and thumbs its nose at the will of the voters.

MORE: From Kuff.

RELATED: I'm surprised to learn that as many as 500 Harris County prisoners will be going as far away as Texarkana in Northeast Texas! A local TV station reports that Harrs' decision to outsource will subsidize Bowie County taxpayers and bail the commissioners court out of an otherwise speculative and uncertain financing situation for their overbuilt jail.

5 comments:

Boyness said...

Because Harris County doesn't want to lower it's jail population.

Anonymous said...

"Given that the Harris County Jail has been overcrowded for years and the feds are about to sue them for failing to meet minimum constitutional standards"

So why doesn't the state close them down? Beacuse it's Harris County and not Podunk County?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Too big to fail?

Anonymous said...

Harris County has been down this road before. A review of the federal litigation Alberti v Sheriff will illustrate that what is happening at the Harris County Jail and in the County criminal justice system is nothing new.....deja vu. It is regrettable that politicians in Harris County have failed to learn from their past expensive mistakes or accept responsibility for the current problems.
Sheriff Garcia apparently fervently believes he can convince voters that another jail is needed to solve the overcrowding problem in Harris County. I, as a Harris County taxpayer, know he is wrong. He won't get my support or vote for such and I believe others will not support throwing more money into that bottomless pit. Until alternatives for release such as increased use of OR release, issuing field citations as opposed to arrest, implementing 10% cash bail, and diversion for mentally ill individuals coupled with sentencing changes such as intervention for drug and alcohol offenders, ordering appropriate community supervision for serious offenders as opposed to all offenders,and providng sanctions other than jail for technical probation violations are utilized the intake at Harris County jails will continue to be high. Also until the judiciary and District Attorney's Office stop trying to coerce defendants into pleading out to speed their court caseload along and offer all defendants, especially the poor, their day in court with adequate legal counsel the jail population will remain high.
The problems in Harris County are that no one is attempting to address this issue from a long-term perspective. Commissioner Radack's comments reflect the prevalent thought process in Harris County. His view that it is cheaper to ship inmates to other locations outside Harris County than to address the problems that exist is small minded and not a lasting solution.
The new "czar" in Harris County, former District Judge Caprice Cosper, formerly worked for Commissioner Radack's Office before being appointed czar, so we have some insight on her likely thought process from her former boss. Also we must remember that as a former District judge she was part of the problem and contributed to it significantly as both a prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office and as a judge.
Perhaps the only solution is federal court litigation and intervention. As a taxpayer I would hate to see that happen, but something needs to be changed dramatically. Removal of the responsible elected officials seems unlikely, but would be a great first step.

Anonymous said...

"Too big to fail?"

Hit the nail on the head Grits. It's not just the cost facor, but the political influence exerted here on a state agency that does not flex its muscle as a result of said influence.

It's not right though to pick on Podunk County and let the Harris and Dallas counties of the world continue to operate in the way they do but hold smaller counties to another standard. And that standard is we will close you down and tell you where to send your inmates.