Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Chronicle: JPI report illuminates sources of Harris jail overcrowding

How many times have we seen this headline, "Harris County Jail filled beyond capacity" (April 2), or something similar, in the Houston Chronicle?

Too many, for my tastes. Either county officials need to fix overcrowding problems at the jail, or else the Chronicle needs to buy its headline writers a thesaurus. I'm guessing "both" might be too much to ask for.

At least reporter Bill Murphy spiced up the story with poignant analysis from the just-released
Justice Policy Institute report (pdf) on local jails, which he said "appeared in line" with Harris County's experience. Let's just identify a few highlights from Murphy's story. For starters, he buried his lead, leaving this startling statistic until the final lines of the story:
Two years ago, the county spent $154 million on detention, Raycraft said.

This year, it will spend $192 million, a 24 percent increase. The costs will continue to rise if the county builds more jails and hires the guards needed to operate them.

A 1/4 cost increase in two years is an astonishing, unsustainable growth rate. No wonder Harris County voters were reticent to give the Sheriff a bigger jail to manage!

Harris County's Jail as of yesterday was 1,000 inmates above capacity, plus another 600 inmates are housed in Louisiana at a cost of $9 million per year in fees to a private vendor.

Also in line with JPI's findings, Murphy writes, a large proportion of the Harris County Jail population are mentally ill or homeless, who require both more services and security:

About 15 percent to 20 percent of the county inmates are prescribed psychotropic medication to treat mental health conditions, said Chief Deputy Mike Smith, who oversees jail operations.

"They are a more problematic inmate," he said. "They require more services. They can be a threat to themselves and a threat to others." ...

The number of homeless in the county jail also is increasing, Smith said. "We are probably becoming the biggest homeless shelter in the state," he said.
Surely there's little question the Harris County Jail is the biggest "homeless shelter in the state." It's hard to think what might even be a close second.

I've written extensively in the past about why the Harris County Jail is overcrowded, so I'll not reiterate it here (except to provide links below). But Murphy supplies a great example for other beat reporters, combining routine coverage of the local jail with analysis from this national study to provide context and a framework for analyzing the subject. If you read through the JPI report, there's a better than very good chance many of the causes and consequences of jail overcrowding they discuss apply to your local jail, too.

Kuff adds his thoughts here.

See prior, related Grits coverage

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