Harris County Commissioners are trying to figure out how to make up for falling tax revenues. The sheriff's department has already cut more than $34 million from its 2010 - 2011 budget, and we're told commissioners may ask the department to shave off another $15 million.
Most of the original cuts came from overtime and spending on the county jail. There's no word yet on what effect the new cuts could have when it comes to public safety.
The Harris County Jail was already understaffed and relying on overtime to house the number of prisoners it holds now. Reduce that overtime and capacity will drop further. Given that the Sheriff can't adequately staff the facilities he's running now, I don't see how on earth anyone could think they can afford to build and staff even more capacity.
One silver lining surrounding the current budget crunch is that it's forcing corrections agencies at all levels to rethink incarceration policies instead of continually expand prison and jail capacity. The Sheriff and some judges in Harris County have heretofore behaved as though they were immune to such macro-level concerns. But at least during the next couple of budget cycles, Harris officials must seek more creative, less expensive options to pretrial detention or raise taxes to build and staff more jail cells. And by all appearances, new taxes aren't presently on the table.
To their credit, some Harris County judges have been quietly taking steps to reduce jail incarceration rates. As of February 1, the county housed just more than 9,400 inmates in a jail with a capacity of 11,000; another 1,100 are housed out of county (many in Louisiana). The reason is staffing: If those 1,100 were brought back to Harris County they'd theoretically have space to put them, but not enough warm bodies to guard them.
That's why, if Harris County slashes Sheriff Garcia's budget this greatly, he not only won't get to build more jail space, he must begin to seriously concern himself with reducing inmate numbers to safely operate the understaffed facilities he has now, which already faced their own challenges. In this case, I'm convinced that's a good thing; it will force county leaders to make tough choices they wouldn't otherwise have the political will to make, starting with Sheriff Garcia and the criminal court judges.
UPDATE (2/24): The Houston Chronicle has more on growing jail costs and staffing shortages:
A growing jail population has fueled a 66 percent increase in sheriff's spending during the past four years.
The sheriff has spent about $34 million this year alone on overtime, much of it to cover shifts at its understaffed jail. A consultant's study in December concluded that the county has 342 fewer jailers than it needs.
“It begs the question as to whether or not the number of employees he has is enough,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “If it's not, then let's hire the people with the same money we're spending on overtime.”
Emmett, too, suggested that hiring more deputies could actually save the Sheriff's Office money.
The budget office imposed a hiring freeze last October.