Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Budget cuts at Harris jail could preclude expansion plebiscite

Demands by the commissioners court that Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia cut tens of millions from his department's budget could put the kabosh, one would think on a plebiscite to expand the jail which had been suggested for later this year. Reports KTRK-TV:
Harris County Commissioners are trying to figure out how to make up for falling tax revenues. The sheriff's department has already cut more than $34 million from its 2010 - 2011 budget, and we're told commissioners may ask the department to shave off another $15 million.

Most of the original cuts came from overtime and spending on the county jail. There's no word yet on what effect the new cuts could have when it comes to public safety.

The Harris County Jail was already understaffed and relying on overtime to house the number of prisoners it holds now. Reduce that overtime and capacity will drop further. Given that the Sheriff can't adequately staff the facilities he's running now, I don't see how on earth anyone could think they can afford to build and staff even more capacity.

One silver lining surrounding the current budget crunch is that it's forcing corrections agencies at all levels to rethink incarceration policies instead of continually expand prison and jail capacity. The Sheriff and some judges in Harris County have heretofore behaved as though they were immune to such macro-level concerns. But at least during the next couple of budget cycles, Harris officials must seek more creative, less expensive options to pretrial detention or raise taxes to build and staff more jail cells. And by all appearances, new taxes aren't presently on the table.

To their credit, some Harris County judges have been quietly taking steps to reduce jail incarceration rates. As of February 1, the county housed just more than 9,400 inmates in a jail with a capacity of 11,000; another 1,100 are housed out of county (many in Louisiana). The reason is staffing: If those 1,100 were brought back to Harris County they'd theoretically have space to put them, but not enough warm bodies to guard them.

That's why, if Harris County slashes Sheriff Garcia's budget this greatly, he not only won't get to build more jail space, he must begin to seriously concern himself with reducing inmate numbers to safely operate the understaffed facilities he has now, which already faced their own challenges. In this case, I'm convinced that's a good thing; it will force county leaders to make tough choices they wouldn't otherwise have the political will to make, starting with Sheriff Garcia and the criminal court judges.

UPDATE (2/24): The Houston Chronicle has more on growing jail costs and staffing shortages:

A growing jail population has fueled a 66 percent increase in sheriff's spending during the past four years.

The sheriff has spent about $34 million this year alone on overtime, much of it to cover shifts at its understaffed jail. A consultant's study in December concluded that the county has 342 fewer jailers than it needs.

“It begs the question as to whether or not the number of employees he has is enough,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “If it's not, then let's hire the people with the same money we're spending on overtime.”

Emmett, too, suggested that hiring more deputies could actually save the Sheriff's Office money.

The budget office imposed a hiring freeze last October.


Hook Em Horns said...

Texas relies on incarceration entirely to much. Bring in the bail bondsmen, get out the ankle monitors and lets jail DANGEROUS PEOPLE and let the others go. Period.

Anonymous said...

What power does the Sheriff have over jail-crowding? I ask as our local jail is facing over-crowding issues too. I just always thought that judges, defense attornies, and prosecutors pretty much controlled jail numbers.

Any insight would be read with interest.

Alan Bernstein said...

Here we go again.

The annual budget never has and never will include funds for building the new city/county booking center, so this year's budget crunch in no way precludes future facilities. The ballot referendum, if there is one, would allow the issuance of construction bonds, which, again, are not part of the budget.

The jail does not have a capacity of 11,000. It has a capacity of 9,400, with variances granted by the state to exceed that amount temporarily. So much for that misnomer.

Right now the official capacity of the booking center is 100, yet the jail receives up to 400 people every Friday night. The county would still need a new booking center even with a drastically lower inmate population in the separate housing areas. Having the city contribute millions to the construction and operation of the new county facility, in payment for the county to handle city inmates, will make it much easier to build, operate and staff this facility -- and eliminate those redundant double bookings. It would also get inmates in and out faster and make the environment safer for inmates and staff alike.

The sheriff, the DA and others already are implementing many of the jail population strategies advocated on this blog. We need to fight the battle on all front simultaneously.

(The writer is the sheriff's public affairs director).

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Alan B, you're being disingenuous. As you well know, your boss has not only proposed a new booking center but also expanding the jail's capacity by at least another 1,200. Stop pretending he hasn't suggested adding jail beds. Unless he plans to build a jail but not staff it, your comments are absurd that "this year's budget crunch in no way precludes future facilities."

On capacity, see the Texas Commission Jail Standards report listing your capacity at 11,006 and the current jail population at 9,405. Bottom line: with existing variances, you COULD house those prisoners in Harris, but as you don't deny, the reason y'all don't is that you can't afford to staff the facilities you have, particularly after cutting overtime. As long as that's true, adding even more jail capacity you can't afford to staff is a fool's errand.

Finally, if booking is so overwhelmed, why hasn't your boss implemented citation authority for his deputies for the B misdemeanors as authorized by the Lege, and encouraged HPD to do the same? That's a lot cheaper than jail building and as you say, "We need to fight the battle on all front simultaneously." But y'all pine for an expensive solution while ignoring one that would save money. I can't help but wonder "Why?"

8:32 - That's mostly true, the judges are the main actors. But the Sheriff has a couple of things he can do, too, particularly since he says the biggest need is for an expanded intake area.

As mentioned to Alan, Garcia and most other sheriffs have refused to let their officers use authority granted by the Lege to issue citations instead of arresting for certain low-level nonviolent misdemeanors, which would significantly reduce the number of inmates they must process. See links at the end of this post for more background on that topic.

Also, Garcia has chosen to put immigration holds on inmates with anything from a traffic warrant on up as opposed to limiting it to felony cases, which also adds to overcrowding and staffing pressures. That's politically popular in some quarters, but it fills up the jail with petty offenders.

I've taken the position that public officials shouldn't be calling for expensive jail building unless they're doing everything else in their power to solve the problem. When officials ignore the things under their control that could help - even if, as in the Sheriff's case, he can't solve the problem alone - I'm less inclined to take seriously the "jail building is the only solution mantra."

Anonymous said...

"Also, Garcia has chosen to put immigration holds on inmates with anything from a traffic warrant on up as opposed to limiting it to felony cases, which also adds to overcrowding and staffing pressures. That's politically popular in some quarters, but it fills up the jail with petty offenders."

Good for Sheriff Garcia and all other sheriff's who are doing the same. Something I support and am willing to pay for.

Anonymous said...

The door is still open for HC participation in a CoH soccer pork tirz with a jail tacked on as a sweetener.

And a couple of incidents involving 'criminals released due to overcrowding' will sway the generally uninformed voters to pass a county bond issue even larger than the one rejected a couple of years ago.

Anonymous said...

They are still filling up the jail with probation and parole technical violators doing jail therapy because these agencies can't manage their case load.
The judges are still issuing arrest warrants in order to see theses probationers on their docket. TDCJ is issuing blue warrants and then reinstating them after a month in jail.
The jail czar and the jail overcrowding task force are not doing anything about this situation.

There was a US DOJ inspection and report done of the Harris County justice system last year that brought these issues to light, but it was shelved (or sh!t canned).
Maybe Grits can get a hold of this report.

Anonymous said...

Historically, we as a state have depended too heavily on the criminal justice system to regulate the anti-social behavior of people. As a result, jail populations have exploded. Especially in regards to misdemeanants – many of whom commit offenses that do not endanger public safety – paying for them to sit in already overcrowded jails seems unnecessary.
Garcia could implement H.B. 2391, authored by Jerry Madden and enacted in 2007, which allows peace officers to issue a citation to persons charged with certain Class A or B misdemeanors. This will reduce the jail population and free up valuable time of his officers. Houston PD should do the same.

Alan Bernstein said...

While still disagreeing with your arguments about the issues I have raised, I will move on to the new issues YOU raise.

Immigration detainers have no effect on the jail population in Harris County and your assertion to the contrary doesn't make it so. ICE picks up at the jail every 24 hours, so those with detainers are removed from the jail as soon as their local case or sentence is finished.

The reason we cannot move inmates back into the jail from outlying rented beds at least until late summer is that we have to empty out some of the floors to do an electronics upgrade on one of the two large jail buildings. These buildings have a finite life expectancy, a fact that contradicts your assertion that no new buildings should be built.

You are opinionated and well-versed on the issues, but neither is a substitute for knowing the details.

Hook Em Horns said...

Alan Bernstein said...

You are opinionated and well-versed on the issues, but neither is a substitute for knowing the details.

2/25/2010 07:47:00 PM
Our opinions are ALL that matter. We helped put Adrian Garcia in office and you bet we can show him the door.