Sunday, November 22, 2009

Harris County should reject expensive new jails until officials use available tools to reduce overcrowding

Ignoring voters' 2007 rejection of a proposed jail expansion, Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has proposed spending a quarter-billion dollars to build 2,500 2,193 more jail beds ("Harris County Sheriff renews call for new jail," Nov. 21).

Really, though, an expanded jail would cost much more than that because the Sheriff can't adequately staff all the facilities he has now (most guards pull double shifts more than once per week, the Houston Chronicle reported last year), and the Sheriff already spends tens of millions of dollars annually on overtime. There aren't enough deputies in Harris County to staff a new jail.

I've little doubt there will be a significant tax hike associated with any new jail bond proposal - the jail voters rejected in 2007 would have increased the portion of Harris County's budget dedicated to criminal justice from 16% to 25%. And if staffing costs were included, that number would probably be higher.

Despite overcrowding pressures, I still oppose new jail building in Harris County because local officials haven't done enough to pursue diversion initiatives and have rejected less expensive tools available to solve the problem. For that matter, Sheriff Garcia is even more obstinate than his GOP predecessor (Garcia is a Democrat) in insisting that only expanding capacity - not diverting offenders from the jail - is acceptable to him as a solution. As long as that's the case, jail expansion isn't a serious proposal: It's folly to believe Harris County can build its way out of the problem and if that's all that's on the table it's not worth it.

What else could Harris County do? The Sheriff can't fix the problem on his own, but with the help of other local officials are a number of options which have been spelled out plenty of times on this blog. Here are a few topline suggestions:

The Sheriff and Houston PD could use authority granted by the Legislature in 2007 to give citations instead of arresting for certain low-level, non-violent Class B misdemeanors. Garcia has refused to even consider this option for his own deputies.

Garcia could reconsider his enthusiasm for filling up the jail with immigration detainees who committed petty misdemeanor offenses.

Judges could stop thwarting the will of the Legislature by requiring county jail time for first offenders on less-than-a-gram drug charges. About 1,200 such inmates are currently incarcerated in Harris County up to six months as a "condition" of probation, though in most other counties such offenders wouldn't be jailed. They could also reduce probation rolls through early release of successful probationers, which over time reduces the pool of probationers available to be revoked.

Judges could reduce bail amounts or utilize more personal bonds for offenders with low flight risks.

The commissioners court could establish a public defenders office to reduce pretrial detention times.

The District Attorney could rescind her predecessor's policy of sending drug paraphernalia to crime labs in order to secure felony possession instead of misdemeanor paraphernalia charges. Other counties may pursue a paraphernalia charge when an offender is found with a crack pipe - in Harris those are treated as state jail felonies and contribute significantly to clogging the jail and court dockets.

The probation department could more aggressively use progressive sanctions to reduce probation revocations. (They've been moving in this direction, but more could be done.)

These opportunities to reduce jail overcrowding have all been ignored for years in Harris County. That's why voters should reject an expensive new jail until local officials make a good-faith attempt to reduce overcrowding by other means. When new construction is the only solution offered for jail overcrowding, that's really no solution at all.


Anonymous said...

Grits - You provide an excellent assessment and discussion some of the options available to Harris county for jail population reduction. Jail crowding and prison crowding are not a function of crime rates. Crowded prisons and jails are a direct function of policy practices by the justice system which determine how many people are placed in confinement and how long they stay confined.

The list of options you provide is a partial list -- there are many more potential options that could have a direct impact on jail and prison populations. Here are a few more:

1. Develop a full range of reentry programs and supports designed to increase successful return to the community by those coming out of prisons and jails.

2. Develop the capacity to focus on holding offenders accountable through the reparation of harms by using voluntary restorative justice processes between victims and their offenders.

3. Develop specialized courts that aim to keep offenders in the community in ways that are safe and deal with the circumstances that lead their offending (e.g., homeless, veterans, DWI, reentry, etc.). These are lower cost, safe, and lower the jail and prison population.

"Tough justice" is often "dumb justice" and we need to use evidence-based practices in smart and thoughtful ways. It is time to leave ideological beliefs in the dust and do what works.

Anonymous said...

In other words, you favor turning over the criminal justice system in Harris County to the liberals and criminals. Well done.

Glad you don't vote in Harris County.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ 9:28: "turning over" ... Huh? That's full-on delusional. I've encouraged existing decisionmakers to make better decisions, not "turning over" the system to anybody.

If you're going to troll here, at least try to make minimal sense.

Also, who cares where I vote? Harris County voters already rejected a new jail and will again if it's proposed. Just like (liberal?) voters in Smith County voted against jail building three years in a row. They'll do so, in the end, because the don't want their taxes raised, which is hardly a "liberal" motivation.

Anonymous said...

2. Develop the capacity to focus on holding offenders accountable through the reparation of harms by using voluntary restorative justice processes between victims and their offenders.

This capacity already exists with the Harris County Dispute Resolution Center, but they refuse to make use of it. A pilot program for juveniles is in the early stages, but teh recent brou-ha-ha with the juvenile probatin chief is going to delay it. Again.

Alan Bernstein said...

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

Anonymous said...

Grits - several days ago, you linked to a study concerning how many people were in jail awaiting trial in the top ten (population wise) counties. I sorta looked at it then drifted away but the number in Harris County was in the thousands. My question is - if every trial judge in Harris tried two jury trials a week, 50 weeks a year, how long would it take them to catch up?

Then you can add to that number all those on bond or some other type of release for another tens of thousands.

I guess I'm saying that we've passed the time in this state when justice can be administered by the system.

I've predicted previously that one of these days, half the citizens of this state will be locked up with the remaining half guarding them. Who is gonna pay the taxes for all this is the real question!

Plato of the Plains

Anonymous said...


Talk about misinformation! The sheriff has rejected “cite-and-release” because he is afraid that someone will be arrested with a citation in their pocket while committing a burglary. You know, all those crazy drugged out on marijuana murderers, robbers and rapists driven to the dirty deed thanks to the nasty weed. Give us a break. This isn't a Rotary PR session. He's still thinking like a simple street cop from a decade ago instead of the manager of the second largest police agency in Harris County. HE should be driving the issue of minimizing those in jail, not blaming it on every other elected or appointed official in the county. HE is in charge of his deputies but refuses to manage them and minimize the garbage arrests that have overloaded booking simply to allow a patrol deputy to have acceptable arrest stats for the end-of-the-month arrest reports to keep a sergeant happy. 10 percent of bookings is petty possession.

Until HE takes the lead in fixing the amount of individuals that are in-processed, HE takes the heat!