Tuesday, October 08, 2013

State prison closures have nothing to do with overincarceration at Harris County jail

Last month, the Houston Chronicle reported (Sept. 27) that Harris County's jail was nearing capacity, again, suggesting that the county may have to once more ship excess prisoners to Louisiana to avoid overcrowding. Wrote reporter Kiah Collier:
The latest jail population report shows the total number of detainees dropped significantly from 2009 to the end of 2011, when the population finally dipped below the 9,434-inmate capacity. Since January, though, it has increased from 8,581 to 9,340, the highest it has been in nearly two years.

Local officials say there are a variety of factors at play, and that the county is not alone.

Among them: The recent closure of two prisons, which has resulted in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice taking longer to pick up inmates destined for prison. There also have been recent increases in the number of felony case filings, detainees awaiting trial and parole violations, the population report shows. Then there is the historic trend of jail populations swelling in the summer and declining in the fall.

"It's not one, single thing," said Caprice Cosper, who heads the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Grits has so frequently documented the causes of overincarceration at the Harris County Jail and so frequently discussed solutions that local officials seem hell-bent on ignoring, at the time I let the red herring about prison closures affecting the jail population pass without comment. State Sen. John Whitmire, though, rightly called bullshit on the claim. In a followup blog post by Collier,
Whitmire acknowledged most of the latter escalations, blaming them on local policy he said needs to be changed, but said the prison closures have played little to no role in the general population uptick and also disputed the average increase given to the Chronicle by a  Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman on Thursday.

Noting the state prison system has “7,000 empty beds today,” Whitmire said that the closures have resulted in some temporary transportation issues that will be fixed shortly.

“It is a minimal, minimal issue and will be resolved within I would say in two weeks,” he said. “They are being picked up about four days later than they were a couple months ago on a transportation issue.”
The notion that state prison closures are the cause of Harris jail overcrowding is a pure red herring. Collier's blog post linked to a fact-filled report (pdf) from the Office of Criminal Justice Coordination on the Harris County jail population. From the data therein on "paper ready" inmates awaiting transfer to TDCJ, Grits created this chart:

So, there's been a slight, recent uptick. But in the big picture, there are FAR fewer paper-ready inmates awaiting transfer to TDCJ than just a couple of years ago, when the jail population was much lower! Sen. Whitmire correctly identified the local sources of Harris County's volitional jail overcrowding:
The uptick in the local jail population, Whitmire said, has more to do with – among other things – a policy implemented this year by the late Harris County District Attorney Mike Anderson to prosecute as felonies so-called “trace cases,” where a person is caught with less than 1/100th of a gram of crack cocaine. Anderson’s predecessor Patricia Lykos had treated those cases as misdemeanors, and claimed it helped to reduce the jail population by 1,000 inmates.

Anderson’s policy “is, no question, one of the factors” in the rising jail population,” Whitmire said, adding that it is an opinion he shares with “some tough Republican judges” like Mike McSpadden.
“We are the only ones that I know of in the urban areas that still prosecute [trace cases as] less than 1 gram,” said the longtime state district judge, who supported the Lykos policy.

Anderson’s wife Devon Anderson, who was appointed to replace her husband this month after he died of cancer, told me Monday that she will continue to prosecute trace cases as felonies, providing there is probable cause, because state law says possession of any amount of cocaine is a felony “until the Legislature changes it.”
The other big cause of Harris jail overcrowding, of course, is excessive pretrial detention for small-time cases, an issue local judges are well aware of but won't address.

In any event, this idea that Texas' prison closures are spurring jail overcrowding in Harris County bespeaks a blame-game mentality that has characterized this debate for years. Nobody in a position to fix the problem - whether it's the DA or local judges - will take responsibility for their own contribution to the situation. They'll pawn off blame on the state if they can - in this case, fraudulently - but all they need to identify the real source of the problem are mirrors.

H/T: Kuff.


Anonymous said...

Harris County voters made a huge mistake by not returning Pat Lykos to that D.A.s position. She was doing an excellent job.

Lee said...

Best system of justice in the world??

Paul-UK said...

Prosecute for cases of possession of less than 1/100th of a gram of crack cocaine! How do you even prove that it is crack? What if someone said that it was powder cocaine but adulterated with baking powder? And given that there are 28 grams to an ounce, what if the person being prosecuted were to claim they were unintentionally contaminated?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Paul, that was the reason the last Harris DA refused to prosecute them as felonies - there isn't enough for defense testing to do confrontation at trial.

DEWEY said...

"Best system of justice in the world??"
Best system if INjustice in the world.

Anonymous said...

The state should punish the people who elect prosecutors who get stupid on crime and waste taxpayers money. Texas needs to place a property tax on counties who send a high ratio of people to TDCJ. I bet these get tough guys would stop getting elected as local prosecutors. Other counties should not be punished because of stupid local prosecutors.