Monday, June 21, 2010

Push for expanded jail by Harris Sheriff ill-conceived

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia wants to reframe the debate over jail bulding - hoping to succeed where his GOP predecessor failed - by portraying an expanded booking center and extra beds as providing services for the mentally ill. However, Marc Levin and Ana YaƱez Correa rightly suggested to the Houston Chronicle that "The costs of running a new building - utilities, staffing, maintenance - will compete for tight budget dollars with reforms that would divert more mentally ill arrestees into treatment instead of cells."

Designating 1,200 beds for the mentally ill may sound like do-gooder public policy, but in the corrections context that simply frees up 1,200 spaces for other new prisoners because there are always more than 1,200 mentally ill offenders in the jail at any give time. If he wants to focus staff and services on these mentally ill offenders, the Sheriff can do so already at far lower cost. While a new wing could conceivably improve the provision of mental health services, it would only do so with the addition of significant new staff - including medical staff and trained mental health professionals as well as guards.

Presently, Harris County doesn't have enough guards to staff the jail cells it operates, and any additional capacity would either require new hires or paying staff costs entirely out of overtime. Harris County Commissioners need only look to Los Angeles - where a $74 million jail sits empty thanks to staffing shortfalls  - to see where these misplaced spending priorities will lead them. (Thanks to a reader for pointing that story out to me.) Before even considering a vote on this proposal, Commissioners should require a detailed staffing plan that demonstrates how Garcia intends to overcome existing staffing shortfalls and staff additional services that will supposedly be provided to the mentally ill. Really, though, the county's immediate priority should be to divert mentally ill offenders to alternative, community-based treatment programs where they can get the care and supervision they need, not endlessly building jail beds in which to warehouse them.

My position on jail building is simple: It's only justified after the most obvious ways to reduce jail populations have been tried, and in Harris County they have not. For starters, Sheriff Garcia chooses to participate in an optional immigration program that needlessly sops up scarce jail beds. Regarding the proposed, 1,000-inmate booking center, in particular, Garcia has failed to enact policies within his authority to reduce unnecessary bookings, like allowing issuance of citations instead of arrests for certain Class B misdemeanors. Instead he'd have the county build space so Houston PD can arrest minor traffic violators.

In that context, it's hard in particular to take seriously complaints that booking facilities are overwhelmed. Garcia could reduce the pressure on intake if he wanted to, and could encourage Houston PD to do the same. Instead he just asks for more beds.

MORE: Chronicle reporter Chris Moran added some detail on the paper's Houston Politics blog that didn't fit into the story.


Anonymous said...

More beds means more arrests for ticket-able petty crap to make up the budget shortfalls. It's a stupid, vicious little cycle. And an expensive one.

Alan Bernstein said...

It makes me sad to see so many false assumptions. Again. Example: The canard that the program to identify suspected illegal immigrants sops up jail beds. Scott: Please come visit and see the truth. Readers and commenters can get more info from me at and 713-755-4679.

Anonymous said...

"For starters, Sheriff Garcia chooses to participate in an optional immigration program that needlessly sops up scarce jail beds."

You are in the minority on this one Grits. The vast majority of Texans favor law enforcement participating in the 287g program.

And if that frosts you, from the web page of congressman Henry Cuellar....

Rep. Cuellar and ICE Applaud Secure Communities Success in Local Jails

DHS’ US-VISIT Automated Biometric Identification System (IDENT) holds biometrics-based immigration records, while the FBI’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS) contains biometrics-based criminal records. The interoperability of these two systems, which is the information-sharing capability ICE uses through Secure Communities, currently is activated in 197 jurisdictions in 20 states. ICE does not regard aliens charged with, but not yet convicted of crimes, as “criminal aliens.” Instead, a “criminal alien” is an alien convicted of a crime.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Why not tackle the most important false assumption from your guy, Alan: That the Sheriff could possibly staff an expanded jail if it's constructed? You want to quibble about the small stuff but your boss isn't doing everything he can right now to reduce pressure on the booking center, and until Garcia produces a staffing plan for how to provide guard coverage for a bigger jail, this is not a realistic plan.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

5:26, people may support it in the abstract. As a practical matter, though, the program creates problems and mostly focuses on petty offenders, which is why in general police chiefs have tended to oppose it.

Anonymous said...

The behind the scenes story is that the Commissioners are frustrated with the Sheriff because he has wasted the personnel that he has on unnecessary positions for political reasons and is not taking care of bidness in the jail and out in the County.
Yes Grits, please come to Harris County, and 60 Minutes with you.
There is a sad story of small town politics that is ruining a big city and county.

Anonymous said...

"the county's immediate priority should be to divert mentally ill offenders to alternative, community-based treatment programs..." Wait a minute.

Just because someone has a psychiatric diagnosis doesn't mean they should released from prison or diverted to a non-secure mental health treatment program. don't have concern for the safety of the public.

Just because someone has a psychiatric diagnosis doesn't mean their offense was minor or non-violent.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

12:13, you misunderstand. They're released over and over right now - the problem with the mentally ill in jail isn't really with the truly dangerous, who get locked up a long time, but the petty "frequent flyers" who are in and out of jail constantly for minor offenses. Supervising those folks in the community is what's needed for the mentally ill in Houston, not more jail space to warehouse them ad infinitum.

Anonymous said...

Harris County pays millions for overtime; need for $250 million facility questioned

“Frankly we don’t need to build now because we’re leasing so much to other jails,” said Radack. “I’m not for investing in bricks and mortar right now. If Harris County went out and sold bonds, we would have to have a tax increase. There is no way we can sell that many bonds. We have a hiring freeze. We don’t have funds to borrow that amount.”

“I think it is premature to even put this on the ballot since so many viable options for reducing jail utilization that protect public safety have not been fully pursued,” said Levin.