Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Solutions for Harris County jail overcrowding may come at ballot box

I'm beginning to think the only way to solve Harris County's jail overcrowding problem may be at the ballot box this fall.

It's been clear for a while now what policies the county needs to implement to reduce overcrowding, but I don't think they can happen unless voters oust judges who refuse to stop requiring high bail for low-level crimes, not to mention the Chuck-Rosenthal era prosecutorial leadership that's spearheaded policies that overuse the jail.

The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County may send 1,100 more prisoners to a private facility in Louisiana, joining 600 already housed in contract beds in the Bayou State. According to the Chron ("Harris County may send more inmates out of state," May 6):
the sheriff's department is asking Commissioners Court for permission to send another 1,130 more inmates to Louisiana facilities.

Harris County already incarcerates 600 inmates at a private detention center in northeast Louisiana at a cost of $9 million a year.

The proposal on today's agenda calls for sending 130 more inmates to that facility and negotiating with other lockups for another 1,000 beds on an as-needed basis. At $38 per inmate per day, those additions could bring the annual cost for incarcerating inmates outside Harris County to $24 million.

As of Monday, a little more than 11,000 inmates were being housed in the jail's four facilities, sheriff's department spokesman Capt. John Martin said.

The Harris County Jail is certified to hold a maximum of 9,400 inmates. The state jail commission temporarily has authorized the detention of 2,000 more inmates on so-called "variance beds," nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor. The county originally was granted permission for 1,000 extra bunks last year, but has had to ask for increases several times in the past year, Martin added.

"We're very rapidly approaching maximum capacity," he said.

For the most part, this is a self-inflicted wound. Big chunks of these inmates don't need to be there. Consultants hired by the county awhile back found that judges have all but quit using personal bonds for many defendants, even where flight risk and the likelihood of re-offending is low.

The Harris DA's office charges felony drug possession when police find paraphernalia with drug residue, though elsewhere such charges get a Class C misdemeanor, i.e., a fine-only ticket. This not only fills up the jails, it needlessly floods the crime lab with petty cases, and state jails with offenders who dont need to be there. Meanwhile, the Sheriff wants to jail more illegal immigrants, and local law enforcement has not utilized new authority to issue citations for certain low-level misdemeanants instead of arresting them.

For these reasons and more, the rise in inmate numbers per se isn't all the Sheriff's fault, but his nonchalant mismanagement has sure contributed to the crisis. The biggest issue for Harris County isn't actually finding jail space, it's finding enough guards to staff its facilities, the Chron reports:

To meet staffing requirements, the Sheriff's Office spent $29 million for overtime at the jail in the fiscal year that ended in February. Most guards are working double shifts more than once a week, Martin said, raising concerns about their health and safety.

"It's a huge concern for us the number of hours that people can physically work without just becoming burnt out or before they get to a point where they're not really as aware as we need for them to be on the job," he said.

Sending more inmates to Louisiana would help offset the amount of overtime the department has to pay and reduce wear and tear on county facilities, Martin said. Leasing space in a similar facility in Texas would cost $45 to $55 per inmate per day, Martin added.

Between $29 million last year in overtime costs, and as much as $33 million per year in lease payments to a private prison - that's around $62 million Harris taxpayers will fork over in the next year that's attributable to understaffing. (Simply hiring enough warm bodies to fully staff facilities can reduce jail costs tremendously.) Bottom line: Sheriff Thomas doesn't employ enough jailers, partially because the county commissioners court hasn't authorized enough, and partly because few people want the job at prevailing wages.

For those reasons, I don't think Harris County can build its way out of the problem, since new jail construction merely add beds the county can't staff at the minimum 48-1 ratio. Spending more than $60 million per year on crisis-type solutions makes no more sense than building jails the county can't staff.

Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said the proposal [to lease beds in Louisiana] appears to be the only viable option. But she said she also thinks there needs to be a full-scale review of the criminal justice system, from arrest and booking to prosecution and sentencing.

"That's a lot of money for short-term solutions," she said.

The county plans to build a 1,100-bed facility in Atascocita, but officials still are examining that proposal.

Last November, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail in the downtown jail complex.

Commissioner Jerry Eversole said the county has to be wary of building facilities to accommodate its summer jail population since the number of inmates usually falls later in the year.

Voters were right IMO to reject a new jail when the Sheriff can't staff or manage the one he's got, particularly when the elected DA and judges are misusing it to incarcerate too many low-level offenders. Commissioner Garcia is spot on that the solutions lie in re-examining the process, not throwing more money at the problem.

As long as Sheriff Thomas, Chuck Rosenthal, and Houston's current crop of ex-prosecutor judges runs the show, however, such a review would be pointless. The problems were identified years ago, the solutions all proposed, but if the elected people currently in charge won't embrace them, what can you do?

Kuff has more.

Related Grits posts:


ms_saul said...

Outsourcing prison management also places a heavy burden on inmates' mental health. Suicide rates tend to be higher in jail where detainees are facing the first shock of incarceration. Especially given rising fuel costs, visitation with family and other support members will decrease even more. I don't know actual statistics of suicide rates in private prisons housing out-of-state inmates, but I would imagine they are higher.

Anonymous said...

Solutions for Harris County jail overcrowding may include inmate suicide!

This plan lowers the recidivism rate more than any wimpy "rehabilitation" currently offered.

Anyone seen the movie Idiocracy?

Anonymous said...

To 5/5/08 11:15, What cruel thought and to even write it down is worse. Keep your thoughts to yourself. People should not have to kill themselves to keep recidivism down, what a unheard of remark.

The way to lower the people in jail is at the ballot box. Get the current Sheriff out and some of the Judges. Now that Rosenthal is gone, maybe the new DA will clean house and get some people to work in that office who care about human lives and not just winning. But that was the Rosenthal way and unfortunaltely most of the Judges feel the same way.

To destroy a family because some ADA or Judge just wants to win a case will be Judged by the Judge of all Judges and many of them have a lot to answer for. Enjoy the walk through the wide gate!!

Anonymous said...

To anom at 01:43...AMEN Brother (or sister)! Don't these folks know they will have to give an account of their lives to God?

Anonymous said...

1:43 and 7:21, I bet Jesus was elbowing God in the ribs laughing when he read 11:16s comment. Come on people, lighten up a little...

Anonymous said...

Don't forget the overcrowding in juvenile prisons, the disproportionate number of youth sent to TYC from Harris County, due in part to cronyism of judges feeding cases to attorney's that supported the judges campaign. Come on grits. You have got to jump more on this issue. It is ridiculous what those two judges are doing to these kids.

J Justus said...

The Feds need to take a look at the past to solve our prison system prob. we have today.We have our jails full of people that cost tax payers from the time of arrest till the time the inmate dies. Once someone has spent time in jail and have a record they will most likely never be able to get and hold a job to support their family and theirselves, so they end up back in jail or on welfare still costing the tax payer. Why doesnt the Feds step in and offer a chance for these inmates to go into the army and out of jail. If they serve without trouble their record would be cleared! Doing this would help alot of inmates grow up, break away from the gangs and build pride in what they have done for their country.I know back in the 1960 this was a option for many people that were facing jail time.This would clear out the jails,cut back on returns to jail and take the strain off our welfair system and give some pride to families that never would have it any other way. And what luck , we happen to be at war with everbody!!!