Monday, January 26, 2009

New Harris DA, Sheriff, judges may finally get serious about jail overcrowding

Harris County officials are coming to grips with the causes of jail overcrowding now that the tanking economy means building and staffing a new jail is not an immediate option.

As has been discussed on Grits many times (see below), Harris County's main jail overcrowding problem stems from radical increases pretrial detention: "The number of people in [the Harris County] jail who are awaiting trial has grown by about 64 prisoners a month for the past two years and has more than doubled since 2001," reported the Houston Chronicle ("Harris County taking action to reduce jail overcrowding," Jan. 24).

The shortest distance between the two points would be for judges to reduce reliance on bail bondsmen and issue more personal bonds for petty offenders:
The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail.
The new judges and District Attorney Pat Lykos also hope the new mental health court just established will help with the problem of mentally ill "frequent flyers" soaking up jail space and resources:

The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and counseling.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the article is the idea that officials are taking this issue seriously at all.

Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for reducing the inmate population.

“That’s the ultimate answer — to get some of these people out of the jail and into other locales or in the free world where they’re under monitored supervision or enhanced bonding,” Smith said.

For years the only response we ever heard from Harris County pols in response to jail overcrowding was "build, baby, build." Now, though, that approach has become financially untenable; even "Former Sheriff Tommy Thomas postponed plans to build a new 1,100-bed jail in Atascocita amid concerns he would not be able to fully staff the facility." Now, Maj. Smith says he doesn’t "think we can build our way out of the overcrowding issue."

With new judges, a new DA and a new Sheriff, there's reason for optimism, to be certain, but the changes in bail policy are all prospective - nothing's happened yet:
Criminal defense lawyer Mark Bennett said he has not seen signs of a policy shift, but is optimistic one is coming. Holding defendants who pose no threat of hurting someone or fleeing keeps them from going to work and caring for their families, he said. A lot of people plead guilty just to get out of jail quickly, including some who probably are innocent, he added.
Still, the discussion among key players seems more constructive and on point than in the past. There's little doubt they're focused on categories of offenders - pretrial detainees and the mentally ill - where Harris County's "tuff on crime" tactics have been needlessly tough on taxpayers without a commensurate improvement in public safety.

Related Grits posts:
And on mental health courts:


Rage Judicata said...

Funny, it's not like it's rocket surgery. One DA and one Sheriff get voted out of office and all of a sudden it's like someone opened the shades in a dark room.

The only real reason it wasn't done before is because they didn't want the light to reveal that our DA and Sheriff were little more than Pee-Wee Herman in a dark theater, playing with themselves over the fact that nobody could stop what they were doing.

Anonymous said...

Its already happened where I live (Cincinnati, Ohio), but I always felt this was a ploy by Sheriff Leis anyways because he tried to manipulate us into raising the sales tax by threatening to shut down the jail:

Capt Les said...

Private bail is the best way to alleviate jail overcrowding. Government should not be in business, i.e., pre-trial release (any business for that matter).
Statistics by the Bureau of Justice clearly show that defendants on private bail are much more likely to show for court (which, I might remind readers, is the bottom line here) by almost 3 to 1.
When a defendant fails to show for court while on "pre-trial release" there is nobody with a vested interest to seek out and return the fugitive to justice.
A private bail company has a monetary interest in the transaction and will do everything in their power to return the fugitive.
A quick fix for jail overcrowding is to move the dockets along faster. Harris County is doing a decent job of this considering how large the county is however, there is certainly room for improvement.I hope that Mrs. Lykos, newly elected Harris County DA, is pursuing this avenue.
Another thing that the layman doesn't usually understand is that most counties are housing inmates other than their own and that includes Harris County. If you want to help with the jail population problem let the "Feds", ICE, U.S. Marshals, etc., house their prisoners somewhere else.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Capt. Les, if private bail works so well, why is the United States basically the only place in the world that allows it?

It's also worth mentioning that "The American Bar Association, the National Association of Pretrial Services Agencies and the National District Attorneys Association have all called for the elimination of commercial bail bonding."

Anonymous said...

Rather than another proposal for a new Smith County jail which failed recently I might add, J.B. and the Smith County jail needs to get on the same train.

"Private bail is the best way to alleviate jail overcrowding."

If mom and pop or grandma or grandad can post the bail (in non bail bond board counties), they will see to it that "junior" shows up for court.

Another thing, where would you rather the bail fee go, to a bondsman or to potentially getting the case dismissed, such as hot check cases, in the form of paying off the check, which is really all the merchant wants anyway. Get the bondsman out of the formula and junior gets his business taken care off.

I would like to see personal recognizance bail set on most A & B misdemeanor cases, especially if the defendant is from the county he is incarcerated. And to go a step further, write the misdemeasnor field citation versus taking someone to jail.

Anonymous said...

If you want to reduce jail population the best way to do that is set bonds on felony probation violations if you look at your jail stats over 1/3 of the population is felony probation. Pre-trial is only releasing people with minor charges with bonds small enough that they can afford anyway.Set bonds on the people with no bonds and let the bondsmen take care of them until they return to court.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Capt. Les - It's interesting that you don't think the government should be in business, but you have no problem with asking the government to provide corporate welfare by supplying a captive, motivated clientele to commercial sureties who make a living selling a product they neither invented nor manufactured - liberty.

As you noted, a commercial surety has a monetary interest in getting defendants to court, but they also seek full indemnification from other parties and accept no responsibility when their clients commit a new offense. There is a huge difference between the limited promises of commercial sureties and the responsibilities assumed by pretrial services agencies.

Oh, and about docket management. You should know that job belongs to the courts, not the sheriff or the prosecutor. As for speed, I'll simply suggest that if you were a defendant, it's unlikely that you would choose efficient docket management over effective administration of justice.

Thanks, Grits, for following this story.


Anonymous said...

Mr. Hobbs if you will do your reading all stats say bondsmen have the best record of getting the defendants to court. These stats show that pre-trial is not a effective way for them to be released. Pre-trial is only grating this service for low-level offenders and still can not get them to court as bondmens are taking the big risk and get the defendants to court. As for Bondsmen taking no risk if this is so why do they spend the time and money to rearrest the defendant? This all comes from my son who jumped bail on a pre-trial bond. No one ever even came to the house and looked for him. Kyle was on the run for 3 yrs and he got pulled over and rearrested. We bonded him out with a Bondsmen and he missed again, needless to say he was back in jail 3 days later.
I dont really care for bondsmen but they provide a service to the tax payer and victom they are now number 1 in my book.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Anon 14:07

Pretrial services supervision is not limited to low-level offenders, and many courts in Texas use them to enhance the "supervision" provided by commercial sureties.

Generally, bondsmen don't take much of a risk. They post bail, then seek indemnification from friends or family in the form or a promissory note. A careful bondsman is rarely exposed to actual risk, but I will acknowledge that finding a defendant is preferable to the hassle of liquidating the promised asset. Unfortunately, the current economic situations - as it hits all businesses - will lead some bondsmen to entertain riskier releases or to take lesser premiums or time-payment premiums. Those failures will really cause tears, since the bondsmen will have to actually pay out of their own pockets. For the past several months, the bail industry has been expecting the number of active bondsmen to dwindle.

In the end, there remains no reason that a criminal defendant should have to pay a private business for liberty. The bail industry should never hold the keys to the jailhouse.

Anonymous said...

How can they talk seriously about jail overcrowding, while these same judges keep issuing arrest warrants for technical probation violations?

Their jail is a debtors prison for probationers who can't pay their heavy fines. The probation program has a built-in failure rate that will always keep any county jail full.

Anonymous said...

08:40 you are so right. The same judges continue to issue bail and thus jail over crowding. Some of the Judges in Harris Co. especially are just out and out mean. Most of them are female and do not care about lives or families only about themselves and their careers. Maybe they will be unseated in the next election, hopefully, Harris Co. is tired of paying for these judges elevated (in their own heads) status.