Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Whitmire: Houston doesn't need more jail beds

Harris County doesn't need a new jail. It needs better management and more responsible use of jail space by judges and prosecutors. At least according to Texas Senate Criminal Justice Chairman John Whitmire, a Houston state senator whose committee oversees the state's prison system.

Via Kuff, the Houston Chronicle yesterday quoted Whitmire declaring that Harris County could solve its overincarceration problem without new jail construction ("Not all agree new jails needed," Dec. 11). That flies in the face of demands by the GOP-dominated commissioners court (Whitmire is a Democrat) that the county build 4,600 new jail beds to combat overcrowding pressures.

I have to say I don't really understand the commissioners' proposal: They can't hire enough guards for the jail they have now. How do they plan to staff a new facility that large?

The Chronicle identified two sources of overincarceration pressures, both of which Grits has analyzed in the past, whose resolution could easily forestall new jail construction: State jail felons serving time in county jails for drug crimes, and too many low-risk defendants incarcerated awaiting trial because they couldn't make bail.

Local officials blamed the Legislature for the number of state jail felons incarcerated in Harris County, but without question it's the fault of local prosecutors and judges. Reported the Chronicle:
swelling the county jail population are inmates serving time for state jail offenses, often low-level drug charges. In 2003, the Legislature changed the law and began allowing some state jail sentences to be served in county jail, and Harris County often has as many as 1,300 such inmates, said sheriff's department Chief Deputy Mike Smith, who oversees the jail.

"If we didn't have convicted state jail felons," he said, "it wouldn't solve everything, but it would solve three-quarters of the (overcrowding) problem."

But that's not what the Legislature did in 2003! The bill he's talking about, HB 2668, required judges to order probation and treatment instead of incarceration for low-level drug crimes on the first offense. However, Harris County prosecutors began routinely using a loophole to ask judges to require up to 6 months incarceration as a condition of probation.

So those 1,300 inmates don't need to be in the county jail, and in fact that's not what the Legislature intended. It represents a choice by local prosecutors and judges that's become a direct cause of the overincarceration crisis.

Kuff identifies another main cause of overincarceration pressures at the jail: Excessive pretrial detention. As Grits reported in 2005, a consultant found that "unnecessary detention of low-risk defendants" exacerbated Harris County's jail overcrowding woes.

Harris County could resolve its overcrowding crisis nearly immediately if judges a) quit sentencing state jail felons to county jail as part of their probation, and b) followed their consultant's recommendation to release more low-level offenders prior to trial. Chairman Whitmire's right - Harris County doesn't need a new jail; it needs new ideas and fresh approaches to criminal justice.

BLOGVERSATION: At the Texas Safety Forum. Also, Tom Kirkendall says "Not another dime."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Senator John Whitmire is the most fair minded man who ever sat in the Texas Senate. He sees both sides of the issue and tries to what is right for all involved.

He deserves respect and support for all who know him and he earns it.

If we can keep the DA's from neighboring counties out of Gov. Perry's office, Texas would not have an over crowding problem

Let those go who are not a treat to society and give rehab back to those who need it rather than keeping them caged up. Texas has become a corrupt State and it makes me ashamed to be a Texas, but if Senator Whitmire can continue, he will help clean up this mess. My hat is off to you, Sir!!