State Sen. Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was the only member of the seven-member Senate Committee on Criminal Justice to vote against the legislation. A report by his staff contends that keeping prisoners in jail longer will inevitably worsen overcrowding, cost the city and county more money, and result in more defendants losing their jobs because of extended incarceration.
It also questions the need for extending the time limit for holding prisoners, noting that Harris County prosecutors requested waivers for additional time in only 3 percent of the misdemeanors filed in a nine-month period last year.
Rather than keeping minor offenders longer, the report recommends picking up the pace of probable cause hearings for prisoners and changing Houston police arrest policies, encouraging officers to issue more tickets rather than arresting people and locking them up.
According to Sen. Ellis, "If the state's problem is that our jails are bringing in too many people, then we need to concentrate on the options we already know can solve this problem — alternatives to incarceration for low-level, non-violent offenses. These smart-on-crime reforms would have the added advantage of making our communities safer and our justice system more effective and efficient. Before we rush to waste more taxpayer dollars to trample on people's constitutional rights, let's enact real reforms that we know work."
The legislation poses another problem as well. Settlements of previous federal suits against the county for jail overcrowding specify the 24-hour deadline for providing prisoners with probable cause hearings. If passed, HB 1173 would put Harris County in a legal quandary.We need to be working toward a solution to our chronic jail problems, not passing laws that would worsen the situation and provide a precedent other counties might follow. Keeping minor offenders in jail longer is bad policy that Harris County's delegation in Austin (along with the rest of the Legislature) should reject.
Sunday, May 22, 2011
Bill boosting Harris County jail crowding headed to Senate floor
A bill Grits criticized earlier this session that would worsen Harris County jail overcrowding - extending the stay of misdemeanor defendants booked into the county jail from a maximum of 24 to 36 hours until they receive a probable cause hearing - has wended its way through the process and is on the Senate "intent calendar" for Monday. The closing paragraphs to this Houston Chronicle editorial explain why it's a bad idea, particularly in a county so full it's had to ship off hundreds of inmates to Louisiana: