The late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated, "In our society liberty is the norm and detention prior to trial is the carefully limited exception." With a jail population of more than 10,000, Harris County jails more than Dallas and Tarrant counties combined. What is controversial, and perhaps unconstitutional, is the number of people in jail who have not been convicted of the crime for which they are held. They are in jail because they don't have the money to get out. In October 2010, of 10,401 county inmates, 6,669 were being held before trial. Due to these pretrial inmates, Harris County must send more than $17 million in local taxpayer money to Louisiana and other Texas counties annually to lock up people from our jail. For those in Harris County, we pay between $45 and $65 per day, per inmate. Is this truly the best use of limited county resources?Whether someone can make bail, the authors point out, may have nothing to do with their relative dangerousness if released: "Those arrested for a crime able to raise funds for a set bond amount are released even though they may present a public safety threat. If a person arrested does not have the funds for a financial bond, they must remain in jail until the case is disposed of, unless they are released on a personal bond. At the discretion of the judge, Harris County Pretrial Services is available to supervise offenders who are given a personal bond."
Grits has been hammering away at this theme on Harris County jail crowding for many years. Nearly everywhere in Texas where you find an overcrowded jail, in fact, you'll find excessive pretrial detention. And where pretrial detention rates are lower, counties don't generally face jail overcrowding problems.Harris County statistics show that there is significant racial disparity in pretrial release practices. While 70.3 percent of whites arrested for a misdemeanor offense were released on a bond, only 51.6 percent of Hispanics were released on a bond and only 45.4 percent of African-Americans were released on a bond.
The incarceration of poor, mostly minority offenders while they await the disposition of their cases costs our county millions of dollars. The costs come at a time when we are laying off county law enforcement officers, have fewer prosecutors in each court to try serious cases and are short more than 300 Harris County sheriff's deputies.
In fact, given what's happening at the Texas Legislature, it would behoove the Harris County justice system to get its act together sooner than later, reducing crowding pressure to focus scarce resources on higher-risk offenders and the growing influx of mentally ill people who end up in the jail. The Harris County Jail has grown into the largest provider of mental health services in the state, we're reminded in a related Chron staff editorial, which argues that "Texas lawmakers aren't being fiscally prudent when they slice already grossly inadequate funding for mental health programs. They're simply passing the buck to counties and cities that have their own budget woes."
These trends have already been converging and may come to a head in the coming year. If and when state mental health cuts hit, if the Harris County Jail hasn't already reduced its baseline cost/incarceration rate in a deliberate, methodical way, it will almost inevitably be forced to do so in crisis mode in a way that will be a lot worse for public safety. Jail expansion IMO is the wrong solution, and in fact what we're seeing in these articles is evidence that the jail is overused for pretrial detention and the mentally ill. The trend toward mass incarceration, in Houston as statewide, has grown unsustainable without local tax increases that the public generally doesn't support.
RELATED: From Prison Legal News, "PR bonds plummet in Harris County."