Saturday, November 05, 2016
Harris Jail overcrowded, again; bail reform desperately needed
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards this week approved having inmates sleep on plastic cots on the floor at the Harris County Jail, which already ships out hundreds of inmates to be housed in other counties. "The commission gave the county the OK to use 192 portable beds until May 31, 2017. Commission members also approved the county's request to extend its existing variance for 580 bunk beds." TCJS executive director Brandon Wood lamented the move, which comes as the county faces federal litigation over an allegedly unconstitutional bail system, saying it "created problems."
The kicker, though: Eighty percent of jail inmates are being detained pretrial and have yet to be convicted, according to the Houston Chronicle, meaning these variances and the purported jail crowding crisis spurring them are entirely a self-inflicted wound. Most of those folks could have been released pending trial. The bail reform measures being considered now should and could have happened a decade ago. If judges would begin using personal bonds for low-level offenses, particularly for misdemeanors and state jail felonies, they could solve the crowding problem in just a few weeks.
For Grits' part, not only do I consider the variances avoidable in light of tools available to reduce the Harris County Jail population, as long as Sheriff Hickman is running the jail I'm frankly unsure it will operate in a safe and secure manner. As soon as he entered office, he gutted oversight mechanisms designed to ferret out problems and a string of ugly incidents have occurred on his watch. Most recently, Lise Olsen reported on the severe beating of an inmate by jail employees outside of a health clinic. The Sheriff has videotape evidence he has refused to release to the public or the inmate's civil attorneys.
So Sheriff Hickman's instincts are to cover up bad deeds when they happen and eliminate personnel dedicated to looking for bad deeds in the first place. That's not a record which would inspire Grits to say, "Sure, go ahead, stack the inmates up like cordwood and let them sleep on the floor: We know you'd never let anything bad happen."