Friday, July 13, 2007

Harris County officials wrong to think they'll build their way out of jail overcrowding

While recovering from a scary bout of pneumonia (Get well, pal), Kuff has been on top of the Harris County Jail mess, offering assessments of recent Houston Chronicle coverage of understaffing problems and plans to outsource inmates to other states here and here.

The Chronicle reported this week that, despite plans to build new jail space, Harris County cannot staff the facilities it owns now. Reported Steve McVicker ("Bond proposal targets staffing at county jail," July 9):
The county spent about $18 million in overtime pay for jailers during the past fiscal year to reach that staffing goal. Last year, the county dedicated $22 million for hiring of 160 new guards, and raising starting annual pay for jailers by 15 percent to $32,200. Currently, 563 civilian detention officers and 680 deputies are assigned to the jail, according the HCSO.

Nevertheless, the sheriff's office continues to hemorrhage money through overtime payments. According to Newby, most jail guards are working at least two double shifts a week. In the first four months of the county's current fiscal year, the sheriff's office has already spent more than $6 million on overtime at the jail -- more than two-thirds of its dedicated overtime budget. If the overtime-spending trend continues, it would top last year's amount.

Other staffing problems are also looming. This week, the jail will lose 80 civilian guards. They are becoming part of the sheriff's office's next cadet academy class.

But somehow they're going to staff NEW facilities? How? With what guards? Until very recently, Harris County had empty jail beds it couldn't use because there weren't enough guards to staff them. And hemorrhaging money is right - $18 million in overtime, $22 million per year more for new guards, and now a $4 million bill for housing county jail inmates out of state.

That's $44 million in recent emergency expenditures essentially because of long-time mismanagement of the jail by the Sheriff and Commissioners Court, plus anomalous sentencing practices of local judges. Let's hear it for fiscal accountability!

The Chronicle editorial board today criticized the Sheriff's decision to send Harris jail inmates hundreds of miles away to a private prison in northern Louisiana at a cost of $4 million for the next six months. Said the editorial board,

A number of factors put Harris County jail managers in the position of having to ship prisoners out of state to lower the inmate population. Some district judges continue to sentence convicted felons to serve their time in the county system, which as of Wednesday held nearly 10,000 prisoners, almost 1,000 over capacity. More than 1,200 of them could be serving their sentences in state prison.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has criticized the frequency with which jurists are sending convicts back to jail for minor parole violations. Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill passed by the Texas Legislature to allow such prisoners to make bail. Had it become law, about 500 jail inmates could have been released, making the planned transfer to Louisiana unnecessary and saving the county millions of dollars.

Sending Texas prisoners out of state also makes family visits more difficult and places at risk the inmates' eventual reintegration into society. A round trip from Houston to Epps can take up to 14 hours.

Warehousing Texas inmates in other states is not the way to ease jail overcrowding. Convicted felons should serve their time in state prisons, and minor parole violators should be released. Making better use of pretrial release programs for nonviolent offenders and new county facilities would provide a permanent solution.

I've been harping on the problem of Harris judges sentencing felony defendants to county jail as a condition of legislatively mandated probation. This is a choice, but since it accounts for 1,200 inmates, simply reversing that judicial policy (Harris County is the only one in the state that regularly sentences defendants that way) would solve the county's entire overcrowding problem.

I should mention for the sake of accuracy that the Chronicle editorial board slightly misstated the point when they wrote that "More than 1,200 of [state jail felons] could be serving their sentences in state prison." In fact, state law requires that first-time state jail felon drug possession offenders be sentenced to probation and treatment instead of incarceration. In Harris County, though, many judges assign probation but include up to six months incarceration in the county jail as a probation "condition." The Legislature plugged that loophole this spring, so this problem should fade to the background in the near future.

The Chron is 100% right, though, that Governor Perry's insensible veto of HB 541, discussed by Grits here, harms Harris more than any other county. Again, the 500 inmates who would have been affected by the law by themselves would solve the short-term problem. There's nothing local officials can do about that - that one is on the Governor.

Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas took umbrage at McVicker's report, and wrote a letter to the editor today defending his department. Thomas writes:

McVicker asserted that "Harris County officials have been criticized for failing to hire enough guards" and declares the alleged failure to be "a problem that has led to ... reprimands by state authorities."

McVicker failed to mention that law enforcement agencies nationwide are experiencing staffing shortages.

It's certainly true McVicker's story didn't place the Harris understaffing problem in the context of similar problems across the state and nation. I've wondered repeatedly who would staff new Texas prisons and jails if they're built?

But Thomas' comments on this score are self contradictory. He admits the staffing problem, and the numbers of new staff he projects are barely enough to staff current facilities. But he declares that "The impending bond proposal should serve as evidence that jail administrators continue to anticipate needs before they arise and to address them in a timely manner." So he backs dramatically expanding Harris County jail space, even though on its face, as Kuff points out, the likelihood the facility can be adequately staffed is virtually nil; even Thomas' own comments confirm that impression.

Harris County's jail overcrowding problem is a self-inflicted wound that could be solved by local officials without building new jails or outsourcing inmates to Louisiana (for Goddsake, Louisiana?). It's time for local officials to stop the fingerpointing and take responsibility for the mess they've created over the last several years.

RELATED: See these Grits suggestions for reducing jail overcrowding, many of which apply directly to Harris:


Anonymous said...

Emerald Corrections, who will be housing Harris county inmates in one of their Louisiana facilities, does these things on the cheap, as all privateers do. Perhaps notable, is their business devlopment person, Michael Moore, who now lives in Texas. Mike was a former regional director in TDCJ and then moved on to become prison director in South Carolina and Florida.

Don said...

Scott: Please read my blog at I need some help with links. I have Grits linked, but don't know how to link in the text. I want to blog on many of the same things you do, and tailor it locally.(Lubbock and Levelland area). I worked for GEO in Littlefield, and GEO has been a pretty hot topic. Need Help with blog, Thanks

Anonymous said...

You don't have enough space to cover all the problems at Harris County Sheriff's Office. The jail just gets noticed a lot more.

Anonymous said...

"If you build it, they will come"...
The prisons and jails are filled to beyond capacity, with no end in sight for occupancy. Outsourcing and building new facilities is not the answer-reforming the sentencing laws & addressing parole issues is a start. Whats going on in Texas is also going on in California...and many other states.