Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Houston judges responsible for massive jail overcrowding tab

The Harris County Commissioners Court has just one group to blame for their budget busting jail overcrowding woes: Local district judges who overuse pretrial detention in order to funnel money to bail bondsmen or help the DA's office extract guilty pleas.

Proponents of building a new jail in Harris County like to point out that nearly 20% of Harris County's approximately 11,730 jail inmates either sleep on "transitional" cots on the floor or in leased space in Louisiana.

However a big portion of those extra inmates don't really need to be there, and the tab (in jail costs) for Houston judges' insistence on jailing them is rising. The Harris commissioners court this week approved a $15 million contract to move another 1,000 Houston inmates to the Bayou State, reported the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County rejects leasing Galveston jail, June 4"):
the Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved one-year contracts with three Louisiana parishes to house up to 1,000 inmates at a cost of up to $15 million. The county already pays a private facility in northeast Louisiana to hold up to 730 prisoners. ...

County leaders will discuss options for permanently easing jail overcrowding at a meeting on capital improvement projects later this month and at its mid-year budget review in September, Budget Officer Dick Raycraft said. ...

As of Tuesday, about 11,000 inmates were being held in Harris County Jail facilities. The jail is certified to hold 9,400 inmates, but the county has the state's permission to temporarily hold 2,000 more on "variance beds," nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor.

It's interesting to me that the next private prison contract will house 1,000 inmates. That's nearly exactly the number of first offender drug defendants incarcerated in Harris County who judges ordered into county jail as a condition of probation. Five years ago the Legislature changed state jail felony sentences so that that drug defendants convicted of possessing less than a gram of a controlled substance (besides pot) would receive probation and treatment instead of prison term. In Harris County, judges have used their discretion to send those defendants to county jail for up to six months as a condition of their probation.

According to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (pdf), 1,102 state jail felons were sentenced to county jail terms as a probation condition as of May 1 - more than the number of new private beds for which the county just contracted. In other words, that extra thousand beds would not be needed if it weren't for discretionary use of the jail by Harris judges, who're thumbing their noses at the Legislature's treatment priorities.

The other big source of Harris jail overcrowding can also be laid at the feet of district judges. Statewide, according to Dr. Tony Fabelo, overall jail population increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, while the number of pretrial detainees increased 49.2% over the same period. Harris County led the state's largest counties with the biggest increase both in raw numbers and by percentage.

The Houston Chronicle reported in April that use of personal bonds in lieu of bail continues to decline in recent years despite the jail overcrowding problem. In Harris County, use of personal bonds for felony offenses declined more than 94% between 1994 and 2004.

Meanwhile, now-retired DA Chuck Rosenthal refused to allow police to use new authority created by the Legislature to give citations instead of arresting for certain low-level misdemeanors, a measure aimed at reducing jail overcrowding and keeping more cops on the beat. Every unnecessary arrest for such offenses amounts to increased jail costs that could have been avoided.

When local judges and the DA aren't using tools available to them to stop overcrowding without jeopardizing public safety, taxpayers have no one but their elected officials to blame for all the extra costs. If those elected officials won't fix the problem, voters will get a chance in November at the ballot box to find new people who will.

MORE: From Texas Prison Bidness.


Anonymous said...

One problem is paying the court appointed attorney only $50 for doing a jail release.

Yeah, I want to do 5 hours of legwork for a chance to earn $50 ONLY IF the magistrate actually approves my guy for a personal bond... that is complete bullshirt ... thats really gonna help pay down my student loans. Its an insult and it basically translates into "don't bother."

The county should pay an additional "bounty" to attorneys that manage to identify and bound out inmates if they are good candidates for personal bond... inmates who are regular people not died-in-the-wool criminals. Inmates who will actually show up for their court date so there is no need to spend the tax money keeping them locked up. They should be paid something like half the cost of incarceration.

Its a win/win suggestion, or even a win-win-win for the taxpayers-inmates-lawyers.

Anonymous said...

Why would they use tools to stop overcrowding? They like overcrowding.

Until the legislature makes these things mandatory (and hence risk running afoul of the separation doctrine), this will not change.

DA's will tell you that the reason crime is dropping is because there are so many criminals in jail....

Ron in Houston said...

You would think that the judges would have gotten the message when the bonds for a new jail were voted down. I think a majority of Harris County residents are getting tired of spending so much money to incarcerate people.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if those darn criminals would stop committing crimes we wouldn't have to worry about such things. Not sure how it's the judges or the DA's fault that there are so many people that need to be incarcerated.

Anonymous said...

The blame for this overcrowding can be pinned squarely on the recent death penalty moratorium.

Anonymous said...

The 180 days jail time should be used during the term of probation as a sanction to get the attention of a non-compliant probationer before incarceration at the TDC level. I guess the Judges in Harris County are as IGNORANT KNOW-IT-ALLS, just like their Bexar County counterparts!
When will the public get a clue and start removing the Incumbents every four years?

Anonymous said...

The juvenile would be less crowded if there wasn't so much cronyism and likely kickbacks for judges appointing cases, disproportionately to those who contribute to their obtaining office...Many youth in Houston are essentially railroaded because attorneys have too many juvenile cases and not enough time. Parents don't understand the juvenile system and before they know it they have signed the bottom line.

Unknown said...

I am curious: How can you say that all 1,102 State Jail felons in the Convicted - county jail column are serving that time as a condition of probation? I have been unable to determine how the jail accounts for any inmates serving time as a condition of probation. It could be that all 1,102 are serving county time under 12.44(a).

Also, it bothers me now and it bothered me when the Chronicle ran the story to see statements like: In Harris County, use of personal bonds for felony offenses declined more than 94% between 1994 and 2004.
Because -- in 1994, there was no such thing as a state jail felony. It seems to be a flawed comparison - to say that the judges grant less personal bonds now than in 1994 when in 1994 there were no state jail drug offenses. Things have changed.

Also, why is the blame automatically thrown to the judges for not granting more pretrial bonds -- why not turn a critical eye toward the Harris County Pretrial Services office -- maybe they aren't providing a good service? I'm just saying . . . . .

Anonymous said...

Pretrial Services doesn't make the release decisions . . . judges do. And if there was a problem with the department, why has the judges use of the department to supervise bondsmens releases skyrocketed over the past several years?

Unknown said...

Yes, the judges do make release decisions, but based on information supplied by pretrial services in their defendant report. If the judge has no faith in the agency's ability to provide accurate information and properly verify references, criminal history information, etc., then the judge is likely not going to approve a personal bond.

Supervision is a completely separate matter - and I am not implying this is the case - that pretrial is not doing a good job in Harris County. I am asking why is that aspect of the pretrial release equation not given critical attention. Everyone seems to assume things about the judges decision making process -- but no one appears to be questioning the facts (and their gathering) upon which the judges make their decision.

Seems like if the county has a pretiral services office and the judges don't use it, the judges are at fault. Maybe pretrial services needs an overhaul.

Anonymous said...

I think Grits had it right all along.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Re state jail felonies, queenie, the fact is misdemeanor bonds went down dramatically, too, so your observation wouldn't explain the numbers at all. Bond use overall has declined in Harris (see the data here).

Regarding whether the sentence was reduced or a function of probation both are a) the judge's choice, and b) a way to get around the requirement for probation on the first offense for less than a gram violations. The Chronicle's past coverage and analyses by nonprofit groups has indicated nearly all these inmates are probationers, and the numbers are growing. The judges have used the tactic for several years pretty systematically to get around the legislation requiring them to give probation.

Finally, go look at the same link to find that a consultant hired by the county said pretrial services was producing high quality product but that judges were ignoring their advice, and many didn't even look at their reports. The overcrowding problem is caused by the judges, not the people giving them information - no doubt in my mind.

Anonymous said...

Put the blame squarely where the blame belongs, the Judges. They have egos that far surpass those of caring people.

If I were a Judge and got voted the first and second worst Judge in Harris County, just by attorneys, I certainly would look at the way I am conducting my work ethics.

Don't blame anyone but the Judges for the over crowded jail system, it is their fault and no one elses. I forgot to mention the District Attorney's office, they also are to blame but they work in cahoots with the judges. None of these people even consider what they are doing to the lives of families and children, who unfortunately after the Judges and District Attorneys take away the main wage earner in the home and he/she lose their job, the rest of the family has to depend on the State to even eat.

Too bad one of the Judges afore mentioned is not up for re-election, that judge certainly does need to find a real job. Maybe by the grace of God there will be a new Sheriff and District Attorney in from the upcoming election. So, all of you get out and vote and do not vote a straight ticket if you want to make changes, select the person and make changes, if not, you will be in the same position you are now in!! The laughing stock of the world and especially of the USA!