Monday, November 23, 2009

Harris County Sheriff's response to Grits jail building critique

Reacting to this Grits post proposing alternative solutions to jail building in Harris County, the Sheriff's Public Affairs director, former Houston Chronicle reporter Alan Bernstein, left these comments in rebuttal:
So much misinformation!

The new Central Processing Center would not add 2,500 beds. It would add about half that, and reserve most of those for special facilities for females and mentally ill inmates. Its prime function would be booking and releasing for the county and for the city, which would pay the county to take over those functions. Inmates would be sent to existing beds faster, and would be released faster when their jail stay is over. A new front door is not a new bedroom, si?

The current processing center is overrun, cramped, outmoded – presenting an unsafe situation that no one wants. The new facility would never “build our way out” of a jail population problem. The sheriff, the county budget director and others involved acknowledge that by 2014, when this new facility would open, there will have to be new policies in place across the entire justice system to avert a continuing inmate population then. Fortunately, all of those things are already under discussion.

The sheriff is moving forward on multiple fronts. George Parnham, chairman of the sheriff’s mental health advisory committee, last month briefed Commissioners Court about plans for a Reintegration Center for the mentally ill, as an example. But we have to plan now to avoid a continuation of the problems we already have with an outmoded, too-small inmate processing center.

The sheriff has not rejected “cite-and-release” but wants to make sure it would make things better, not backfire, before seriously considering it.

The jail has no “immigrant detainees” other than those who would be there as non-immigrants dealing with criminal charges under state law. The county jail does not house inmates solely because they are facing immigration charges.

The public defender’s office, new bonding policies and other ideas, all of which are beyond the sheriff’s authority, are also being considered already.

What has changed since the “jail” (wrong title, to be fair) bond was rejected in 2007 besides there now being a new sheriff? For one, there is now a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council of 11 elected officials who are hashing out the ideas presented on this blog. Many of these officials are restless and eager to move forward.

Alan Bernstein
Director of Public Affairs
Harris County Sheriff’s Office
Since I've been accused of spreading "misinformation," let's run through these arguments, shall we?

First, I should acknowledge that I misstated the number of proposed beds to be built, which is 2,193, not 2,500; the latter was the number of bed proposed in the 2007 bond election and I mistakenly transposed the figures. Reports the Chronicle, "Garcia's plan would establish a new booking center that could hold 2,193 prisoners. It would have about 1,200 beds and capacity to hold another 1,000 people for the processing involved in being booked into or released from jail." My apologies for the error. However, 2,193 is not "half" of 2,500.

The Sheriff is engaging in a bit of sleight of hand to claim that a new booking center shouldn't be counted as increased "capacity." In reality, existing cell space is being used for those purposes right now. So unless they shut down those beds - as Travis County did when they recently added a new wing - beds previously used for central booking will now be available for other uses. Who believes they won't just fill them up?

I also find it incredible (for someone accusing others of spreading "misinformation") for Bernstein to claim that "The sheriff has not rejected 'cite-and-release.'” That's simply false. Garcia has been asked to implement it and declined. What's more, Bernstein admits the Sheriff is not "seriously considering" the idea. While many overcrowding solutions require action by other actors in the system - the DA, judges, the commissioners court - the cite-and-release policy for his deputies is totally under Garcia's control. If the Sheriff won't do all he can to reduce overcrowding pressures using the tools available to him, IMO it's unjustified to ask voters for a quarter-billion dollar band aid.

Equally odd was the claim that "The jail has no 'immigrant detainees' other than those who would be there as non-immigrants dealing with criminal charges under state law." That's a red herring. The Harris jail does not house federal immigration prisoners, it's true, but it's also the case that Garcia has chosen to continue a program begun during the 2008 campaign season by his predecessor to identify and flag offenders for federal immigration holds. As I wrote last year about this program, "The only point of the training is to detain more people, but the jail is full. Other than making some abstract political statement, the practical function of [such] new programs ... is to fill up the jail with defendants who otherwise pose little threat to public safety."

I'm certainly glad to receive reassurance that "The public defender’s office, new bonding policies and other ideas, all of which are beyond the sheriff’s authority, are also being considered already." However, some of these things have been "considered" for years. My point was that implementation of those ideas should be prioritized over building more jail space. First things first.

The most important parts of Bernstein's response, at the end of the day, were the things he did not say. He did not dispute that the Sheriff couldn't staff new jail space with existing deputies. The jail currently requires overtime and double shifts to cover the beds they run now. And he didn't dispute that the jail will be a budget-buster, requiring a significant property tax increase during the midst of a recession. Those are the reasons voters rejected a similar jail bond proposal in 2007, and unless the economy turns around unexpectedly, it's hard to imagine those sentiments changing next year.


Ken W. Good said...

I would like to take issue with your comment that a cite and release program would help with jail overcrowding. Jail overcrowdiing comes from medium to high risk people awaiting trial and people sitting out their time locally. The cite and release program for a list of certain offenses will not have an impact on the jail. These people would never be in the jail any longer than book in and book out on a bond (personal or surety). Therefore, I disagree that using a cite and release program would impact the jail population.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Ken, when the jail is completely full, as is Harris', and they're shipping hundreds of prisoners out of state because they have zero extra space, any unnecessary use of jail resources contributes to the problem.

In this case, in particular, since the Sheriff wants the quarter-billion to expand Central Booking, the offenders who would be diverted by a cite and release policy would directly impact the capacity issues we're talking about. They may not all stay, but they still have to be booked.

Paul Walcutt said...

Ken, I've seen Travis County take 12-18 hours to book and get the personal bond approved on POM and DWLS charges. If the city and county are arresting dozens of people a day on those charges (which they were before the cite and release policy was implemented here in Austin), then those beds/spaces are in effect occupied full time.

Anonymous said...


Do you actually think that someone arrested on a Friday night is booked in, sees the magistrate and is out again in a couple of hours? HCSO isn't the DMV where you stop by the office, fill out some forms and are out of there in 2-3 hours. Plan on spending a night or two. Heck it may even be a couple of shifts before you are transported from a district holding cell to downtown for another long wait. With up to 10 percent of those booked being petty marijuana charges the sheriff is overloading the system to justify the new jail. The worst group though are the ones picked up on a warrant for failing to address some other minor offense such as paying their state "fines" to unsuspend (?) a license, for instance. Want to actually know who the sheriff is filling up the jails with? Take a look at the "Sheriff's Department Arrest Data Within the Last 24 Hours".

Paul Walcutt said...

Taking a look at the data for the 315 people booked in last 24 hours, there are 46 inmates at HCJ who would qualify for cite and release under CCP 14.06:

- 24 people for marijuana Class A or B (7.6% of the incoming population);
- 14 people booked for Driving While License Suspended (4.4%);
- 2 for Criminal Mischief - Class B (0.6%); and
- 6 for Class B Theft (1.9%).

This is potentially 14.6% of the incoming population that Harris County/HPD could avoid booking by implementing a cite and release policy.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Good number crunching, Paul. And thanks for the link, 4:10. Excellent added value in the blog comments today!

Chris H said...

Don't get all uppity Grits.

You said 2500 BEDS. Bernstein and the Chronicle say 1200 BEDS and 2193 PRISONERS. 1200 is indeed half of 2500.

Anonymous said...

Hey Mr. Grits,

How many more police officers have to be killed by an Illegal Immigrant in Harris County before we support Law Enforcement with their duty to arrest, detain, deport and secure our our borders?

"..but it's also the case that Garcia has chosen to continue a program begun during the 2008 campaign season by his predecessor to identify and flag offenders for federal immigration holds. As I wrote last year about this program, "The only point of the training is to detain more people, but the jail is full.."

I bet there are some officers family members who wish the Illegal Immigrant who killed their loved one was in a crowded jail!

Anonymous said...

Paul Walcutt, Do you know that probably 90% of the people who committed the crimes you listed have no form of ID when arrested?

How do you expect an officer to positively identify a violator and write that person a proper citation for Criminal Mischief, Theft & DWLS, when the violator has NO ID?

Do you really think the violator who just broke into your car is going to be honest and provide an officers their real name and date of birth, knowing they only going to get the "cite and release" treatment?

Thomas Hobbes said...

Anon 06:20 PM -

Duh, I dunno. Mobile print terminals?

Anonymous said...

Duh, do you really think every legal citizen in the USA has their fingerprint on file somewhere, or there is a data base that connects every police department in the nation together with peoples prints? The FBI doesn't even have this type of capability.

Even better..I'm sure Mexico prints all their citizens and utilizes mobile print terminals, so it should be NO problem identifying an Illegal Immigrant that just broke into your car.

Yes, I know about AFIS, but not every police department uses it. As a matter of fact, I would guess 5% of the police departments in the nation use AFIS.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Okay, Anon, let's talk turkey. No, I don't believe every legal citizen has prints on file. However, many do, from prior arrestees to the average Texas-licensed driver. Illegals are not the predominant group committing crimes; oddly, the predominant group are US citizens.

I'm simply saying that - if you're really worried about trying to positively identify people - in a county where AFIS already has a significant presence, it only makes sense (i.e., it's a no-brainer) to leverage the technology already available and in use.

And, by the way, nobody said you couldn't go ahead and book a perp who couldn't produce valid identification streetside.

Paul Walcutt said...

Anon 6:20 - Without some support, you assertion is meaningless. I imagine you can't provide one and are relying on hyperbole to stifle discussion.

I imagine the process could go down like this. Person give name and DL or ID number if no physical ID present. If information comes back as false, then arrest gets made with additional charge of Failure to ID. If the police want to add an extra layer of security, then take a mobile thumbprint and put in on officer/court's copy of the citation.

The point of the legislature amending CCP 14.06 was to eliminating overcrowding in the State's jails for what the legislature determined to be relatively minor misdemeanors. No system is perfect and some people, even if identified correctly, are going to fail to appear at their citation dates. The legislature has weighed the pros and cons and determined that the tradeoff is acceptable.

I think local law enforcement, especially in a county with severe jail overcrowding like Harris, should seriously consider this option instead of continuing to lockup 1000s of people.

NoMoreNoloContendere said...

Hey Grits,
There's a new sheriff in town & he follows Gritsforbreakfast.

Well, at least his flunky does. I'm going to send both of them a copy of "The Griffith Files - 1984 & Beyond" for X-mas. It exposes many of the tactics used by the sheriff in regards to the jail population.

For those that won't get a copy, here is a taste. In 84, yesterday & tomorrow, nothing has and/or will change. 32 man tanks with 60 plus inmates for days on end. Then all of the sudden those sleeping on the floor are moved to another floor. I danced the Harris County Shuffle for five months.

Sometimes while inspectors are on one floor, the guards are shuffling inmates away from the jail. Some wake up in court holding tanks, in the HPD cells and even in the women’s section. They took 60 of us on a bus ride to Galveston only to be told that we didn't have medical appointments. One day 16 of us rode elevators all day.

So, when each and every sheriff gets away with hiding the true numbers from the public & press for decades, don't be surprised when they hire goofballs to hold up charts & graphs full of fuzzy math.

Sorry so long but I'm from the frigin county & hate to see the real problem get ignored. Bad cops & deputies with quotas tied to promotions fueled by rogue Assistant District Attorneys & "Sell Out" lawyers conspiring to plead out 90 to 95 percent. It's simply cause & effect folks, you get what you vote for and what you put up with. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

It sounds to me like someone has an ax to grind who spent five months in the county jail, instead of “bad cops & deputies with quotas tied to promotions…”.

Anonymous said...

Wow…..the real frigin problem here is being ignored….“bad” people who do “bad” things go to jail. It’s simply cause and effect folks, if you can’t do the time don’t do the crime. Your Welcome

Anonymous said...

"...And thanks for the link, 4:10. Excellent added value in the blog comments today!"

Glad to be able to add something of consequence to such a great site! :~)