Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Houston should fix current jails before building more

The Houston Chronicle's editorial today calling for two new local jails, titled "Worth the Price," ignores the most obvious practical problems with the idea to suggest throwing good money after bad.

Harris County officials who want voters to spring for a new jail are like the child who has let several goldfish starve to death then begs his parents for a dog. They can't take care of (or staff) the jails they've got ... why should voters give them two new ones?

The Chronicle's arguments rely on a fallacy: That building new facilities the county can't afford will somehow improve older facilities the county isn't properly managing now. It won't, it will just exacerbate understaffing and underfunding that plague Houston's current jails. The editorial argues:
anyone who has toured the city and county jails or had to assist a friend or relative in getting released knows firsthand how bad the conditions are and how pressing the need for new facilities.
But no one plans to mothball county facilities that currently suffer bad conditions, so how will building two jails more change that?

Also, the Chronicle editorial ignores the biggest practical conundrum facing would-be jail builders: Who will staff them? It's not an academic question. Harris County can't afford guards for the facilities they've got now, and expanding capacity by thousands of beds would require hiring hundreds of new guards at a time when Houston PD, the state prison system, and the military are recruiting from the same small pool.

Some of the improvements touted by the Chronicle would insulate the county from becoming the target of federal action over poor jail healthcare:
Of greatest priority is the planned central processing facility downtown, with 2,500 beds to replace both the city jail and the deteriorating sheriff's booking facility. It would expand by 93,000 square feet existing health care space and centralize it on one floor.

The aim is to house all patients with ongoing health problems near treatment sources. It would add more single cells to provide a secure environment for substance abusers to detox and isolate prisoners with contagious respiratory illness.

"We can identify probably a third of our jail population that have some kind of mental health issues," Sheriff Tommy Thomas said. "We need this to expand existing services."

In addition, the central booking facility would allow officers a one-stop destination to hand over prisoners, drop off evidence and then get back to their priority task of policing the city. Since Houston's force is seriously undermanned, the saving in time and effort will be doubly valuable.

The city would contribute $32 million to build the facility and pay the county annually for the cost of jailing those arrested by HPD for misdemeanor offenses.

That all sounds reasonable, but two things come to mind. First, the reason Harris County might fear federal lawsuits or other regulatory intervention is precisely that they've underfunded and understaffed their current facilities. Wouldn't taxpayers' money be better spent hiring more doctors and nurses, for example, instead of building massive new facilities when they can't staff the old ones?

Second, while improvements to health facilities are being touted, and are certainly needed, they're being wrapped into a larger package that includes expanding the size of Harris County jails by up to 50% - adding a ridiculous amount of capacity to what's already the state's largest jail, enabling the criminal justice system to endlessly pursue failed policies rather than forcing them to manage their business better.

Like the kid with the dead goldfish, the Chronicle's editorial writers say that county officials will do better next time if they're only given a chance:
Rather than continuing to be subject to nonstop litigation over penal conditions, the county and city now have the opportunity to build and operate jails that meet or surpass federal and state capacity, staffing and medical standards.
Well, you know what? They already had a chance to do those things.

If you can't take care of a goldfish, why in heaven's name should taxpayers buy you a dog?

I've discussed numerous ways to reduce Houston's jail population to more manageable levels without harming public safety. See prior Grits coverage of Harris County jail overcrowding.

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