This move reminds me of Winston Churchill's observation that Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they've tried everything else. Bottom line: If so many people are being arrested for traffic violations in Houston it was having an impact on jail populations, that needed to stop anyway and nothing except running up against jail population limits could possibly make them change their ways.
The Houston Police Department stopped arresting people for minor traffic violations late Thursday, hours after Sheriff Adrian Garcia told the city to slow down the flow of arrestees into the county's booking center.
“The impact is limited mainly to traffic violations. We're not going to put people in jail for new or existing traffic violations,” HPD Assistant Chief Vicki King said. She said the leniency only applies to people who would have gone to jail for a combination of low-level offenses — weaving in traffic while driving without insurance, for example.
She said public safety is not threatened.
“We will not release criminals back into our city. If you commit a criminal offense in the city of Houston we're going to find a home for you,” King said.
The sheriff's order went into effect Thursday morning. It requires Houston police to call the County Jail every two hours to see how many inmates it can accept.
By Friday, even after the stop-arrest order, Houston city jails started filling. At 9 a.m., the city had 69 inmates ready to send to the county, but was told the booking center could not take any.
The city got the same answer two hours later when it had 99 people waiting. At 1 p.m., it was allowed to send 10 of the 109 designated for transfer. By late Friday afternoon, the city was holding 127 inmates that normally would have been sent to the County Jail. The city's two main jails have a capacity of 400 inmates. Friday afternoon they were holding 360.
OTOH, if jail space exists it's always possible to find violators to fill it; the general rule with jails is "if you build it, they will come." In this case, nobody thinks these arrestees pose a significant threat. Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland told KTRK TV, "These are not dangerous violent offenders that are being diverted, so I don't think the public's at risk."
Harris County could reduce jail overcrowding even more if they would use all the methods in their toolkit. Mostly the responsibility falls to local judges, but both Houston PD and the Sheriff refuse to allow their officers to exercise authority granted by the Legislature in 2007 to give citations instead of arresting people for certain nonviolent Class B misdemeanors. That change would go a long way toward reducing front-end pressure on the booking center, which is where they're facing a bottleneck, but neither agency will pull the trigger. And if those offenders needn't be in the jail, for damn sure Harris County shouldn't be jailing non-intoxicated traffic violators.
MORE: From Kuff.