Thursday, August 05, 2010

Leadership needed to reduce Harris County jail overcrowding

Both Dallas and Harris Counties are up on today's Texas Commission on Jail Standards agenda (pdf), and I'd be headed up there to listen in if paying work didn't obligate me to focus my attention elsewhere. In the meantime, Brandi Grissom has a story at the Texas Tribune on overcrowding at the Harris County Jail based on a letter (pdf) from legislators to TCJS' Adan Munoz and the executive director's response (pdf). Sheriff Adrian Garcia replied (pdf) to both, and Grissom runs through the highlights of the exchange. I was particularly interested in Sheriff Garcia's brief mention that he's considering allowing his deputies to issue a summons/citation for low-level Class B misdemeanors, as authorized by the Legislature in 2007 to help reduce overcrowding. Garcia wrote that:
Cite-and-release is an option I continue to consider. However, for such a policy to significantly lower jail population, it would also have to be adopted by the Houston Police Department (which provides 60% of our jail bookings) and the many other agencies that bring inmates to the jail. If officers on patrol had the authority to collect DNA and/or fingerprints at the scene of such a case before issuing a citation, this would go a long way toward raising the public's comfort level with cite-and-release.
As I mentioned in the comments at the Tribune, I have no idea what Sheriff Garcia means in his letter about the "public" accepting the summons idea. There has been nobody publicly opposing the idea except Garcia himself! Not to mention, he's making the process a lot more difficult than it needs to be if he's waiting for deputies to take fingerprints and DNA swabs in the field before implementing the program. Other jurisdictions have developed processes for handling those details and Garcia could mimic their systems if he tried.

OTOH, I do agree that the Sheriff's department implementing cite-and-summons alone wouldn't make as big a difference as Houston PD doing so. But leadership matters and there's precedent to believe that if the Sheriff takes such a step, other law enforcement agencies may follow his lead. In Travis County, the Sheriff implemented a B-misdemeanor summons policy first and then the municipal police in Austin began issuing Class B citations after the Sheriff demonstrated it could work. Other jurisdictions across the state have made the switch, often with the sheriff taking the lead because only the sheriff has direct responsibility for an overcrowded jail.

For that matter, Sheriff Garcia is a former city councilman and has ample connections within city government. When he wanted to expand his jail he had no qualms about going to city government and asking them to partner on a new facility. Why not go to Mayor Annise Parker and say, "We need you to join us in implementing summons for B misdemeanors to solve our jail overcrowding problems"? Perhaps the Sheriff doesn't think that's his role, or perhaps that's supposed to happen through the county's fledgling Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, but somebody, somewhere, needs to demonstrate some leadership and focus more on results than excuse making.

It's not all Garcia's fault; for the most part all of the main drivers of jail overcrowding in Houston have been going on for many years and most of them are beyond his control. I've just heard too many excuses for inaction coupled with demands for more jail building, and at this particular moment in the county's history that's not good enough anymore.

UPDATE: Grissom has more from the hearing.

Related Grits posts:


Anonymous said...

Garcia worries that someone will be arrested doing a burglary with a citation in their pocket for petty possession of marijuana (the burglary done supposedly to obtain money to buy more drugs). Enough of those and its negative fodder during the next election. :~)

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, 8:34, that cuts both ways. Continuing to push for a new jail and a tax increase voters already rejected at the polls might also generate "negative fodder" in the next election for ignoring voters' wishes.

Plus, those burglarizing houses for drug money are typically hooked on something harder than marijuana. I don't see the half-dozen nonviolent misdemeanors eligible for summons - all pretty penny ante stuff - as generating a high risk of Willie Horton style backlash.

Hook Em Horns said...

Adrian Garcia is head and shoulders above what we had here for years. I cannot emphasize enough how great it is to have him in office. Responsive and in front of the issues. Yes, there are things that need to happen, but they have a much better chance of getting done now.

The issue of over-crowding, as Grits points out, is not his alone. Pat Lykos (the Harris County D.A.) has been out in front on this also. It will take more than that. It will take cooperation from all law enforcement agencies, probably the Mayor's office and criminal court judges.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Until very recently, Hook 'em, I would have argued that Garcia's policies as Sheriff as a practical matter were no different and perhaps slightly more regressive than his GOP predecessor. Lately, he's begun to at least talk the talk, acknowledging other solutions are needed even as he rejects each specific one or looks to attach precluding conditions, like fingerprinting in the field. But a new jail is where he's put most of his political capital.

All that said, the judges are far and away a bigger problem. As mentioned, overcrowding ends tomorrow if they begin giving personal or radically reduced bonds to defendants who pretrial services identifies as low-risk. Harris pays to have the assessments done then the judges routinely ignore them. Fix that, and next thing you know there's no need to rent beds in Louisiana or god knows where else Harris inmates all wound up.

Anonymous said...


Pushing for the new jail would only cost the commisioners not the sheriff, I suspect, because it would be they who actually authorize the expenditure (people expect the sheriff's office to try to grow it seems).

As for his belief about drugs though I concur with your position I'm afraid he doesn't. I believe he carries what I consider an uneducated street cop's belief about drugs and their linkage to crime instead of an educated view of them. With the Republicans in Harris County using anything crime related against any Democrat - and he is one of the few holding a county office in Harris County - I also suspect (but hold no "proof") that that is why he hasn't aggressively pursued the use of a summons to lower the jail population - beside having a cop's mentality about having to arrest someone to "punish" them (You can beat the charge but you can't beat the ride street attitude). :~)

Anonymous said...


...and you are correct regarding the judges in Houston! The problem with them is the concept of personal courthouse fiefdoms. :~)

Anonymous said...

A responsible approach would be just as easy to implement and instead of creating more problems and more government waste the exact opposite could and would occur.

A report here at Grits in August of last year pointed to the 1.2 million open warrants for Class C Misdemeanors with the City of Houston Municipal Court (alone). With this kind of performance it is realistic to question whether or not the catch and release would not soon become the catch and release and now go catch again program.

Currently anyone arrested for Class C misdemeanors relating to the Harris County Justice of the Peace Courts are being released from the Harris County Jail within 24 hours after being arrested. If the defendant pleads guilty then a release for time served is given. If the defendant pleads not guilty then a personal recognizance bond is given, catching and then releasing the defendant for a (second time) and likewise set the stage for a failure to appear for a second time.

This process actually holds a defendant in jail (longer) than if the defendant had posted a bond. Bonding companies no longer even make arrangements for these bonds with potential clients; they simply tell them that the defendant will be released eventually.

The most noticeable difference is that by implementing more government, i.e., Judges, court personnel, jail personnel, equipment, etc, to address the jail overcrowding of class C misdemeanor defendants, they have, instead of fixing a problem, very effectively added substantially to the tax burden and cut out almost all of the revenue that in the past was collected and could have been used for the mentally Ill, drug treatment, jail space, officers, etc.

The vast majority of Class A and B misdemeanors are also released with 24 hours through private bail and through Harris County Pretrial Release. These criminal offenses have never been a cause of jail overcrowding, but they have, because of government intervention, also become a huge pointless drain on tax dollars.

The problem exists with those who remain in jail, not those who routinely rotate out within 24 to 48 hours. Catching and releasing or utilizing the current system is counter productive.

The answer is to cut out the waste and eliminate it, then drastically lower the bonds for those who remain incarcerated and let the professional bail bondsman that have always outperformed government bail and have always guaranteed court appearance through financial obligation simply do their job.

Anonymous said...

The problem exists with those who remain in jail, not those who routinely rotate out within 24 to 48 hours.

Not true. In fact, a constant influx of short term prisoners is just as bad as long term prisoners. Besides, it's the constant intake that caused the jail to close a couple of times about a month ago. They were taking in too many HPD misdemeanants. It's also why Garcia switched his focus from a new jail to a new intake facility--because no matter how long they stay, the constant revolving door is still a huge problem.

Now we just need an explanation as to why an "intake" facility needs 1,200 beds.

Garcia is little different than Thomas. Just like Holder is little different than any of Bush's AG's.


Gritsforbreakfast said...

I don't know about that, Rage. FWIW, I can point to many more policy changes from Ashcroft/Gonzales to Holder than from Thomas to Garcia.

I do agree that the churning of short-term inmates is a big part of the problem: It's the main reason they need a larger booking area, going by comments from staff during the tour I took recently.

6:13, I've heard several Houstonites say the same thing about Garcia. However, I've never met the man and hesitate to read too much of his personal background into his policy stances unless he himself makes the link. People like to divide things along partisan lines, but the way I see it, the Sheriff's Office has its own institutional agenda whether a Dem or Republican is in office, which is why Garcia's stances have so far down the line largely mimicked his predecessor.

Anonymous said...

In response to “not true”

My argument isn’t that the constant influx doesn’t matter, but that huge amounts of tax dollars are being spent to fix a problem that was never in existence in the first place; couple that with the fact that by doing so they have also completely cut out the revenue source that was in existence prior to changing policy and the two fold problem of spending much more and receiving (none) has created a no mans land of bureaucratic waste. AND, it now takes much longer to obtain a release. (Counter productive)

I point to 1.2 million open warrants for class C misdemeanors that only include one municipality within Harris County, add to that 16 Justice of the Peace Courts and another 15 municipalities that also have large numbers of open warrants in existence that can only be there because defendants failed to appear and it raises the question about whether or not catch and release is a viable option for class A and B misdemeanor offenses.

When you speak of the truth, a consideration about how we have gotten to where we are today should be investigated. It is of no surprise that a financial burden exists when policy dictates spending with no possibility of ever recouping what was spent.

When a new complaint is filed for class A and B misdemeanors the time frame for receiving information in order to even begin the process of release takes between 8 and 12 hours. Then if a defendant has not made arrangements for release before midnight they must wait until after they have gone to court the next morning because the releasing process also takes between 8 and 12 hours, and then they are not available for release until after 3pm that day. So in effect if someone were arrested and jailed at 4pm in the evening the only possible way to obtain a release is to wait approximately 32 hours before they see the light of day.

And now it is suggested that if catch and release were put into play we suddenly have the possibility of a 3 hour window of release, without the consideration of how it would impact the public, the increase in failure to appears, and once again the depletion of revenue collected while constantly increasing cost.

Streamline the process for all misdemeanor cases, put manpower to work where the possibility of increased income by County and City government exist to not only pay for the increase but allows for a surplus that was at one time in existence. Set a standard low bond for each misdemeanor offense regardless of prior criminal record and allow for the possibility of financial guarantee to exist. These same defendants could easily be processed and released within a few short hours with an absolute guarantee that City and County coffers will be reimbursed along with the surplus to cover the expense created by the initial arrest.

Allow for already existing warrants for class C misdemeanor defendants that have been arrested to make immediate arrangements for release by adding the manpower needed.

Families in Harris County trying to get their loved ones out of jail so that they won’t be late for work and possibly lose their job are shocked when they find out how long the process takes.

The process for posting a non-arrest financially guaranteed bail bond takes 15 minutes. Bail bondsman in Harris County customarily posted these bonds immediately (for years) when someone had been arrested, and the defendant was released immediately. The vast majority of class A, B, and C misdemeanor defendants have always made bail, and will again if the bureaucracy that now exists simply moves out of the way and streamlines the ability to do so.

Then a realistic look at those who remain incarcerated for felony charges with high bail can then be considered for a much lower bond. Bail Bondsmen do not care if the bond is $500.00 or $5000.00 it is all real money to them. Bail should not be made to punish, it should exist to guarantee court appearance.

Anonymous said...


Sheriff Garcia once told me that he worried about a suspect being caught with a summons already in his pocket for marijuana possession but he didn't explain his reasoning so I can only infer his motivation.

You are (as usual) right on the mark regarding an institutional agenda vs. a political one when it comes to policies of the office but always in the background is the recognition of the political consequences (read next election) of certain actions - if not the original act then the follow-up reactions.

As an aside, many deputies were looking for a change in management last election but now aren't impressed with it. Seemed he brought in too many people into senior manager slots (rank of major) with little upper management experience and since then has had a bit of a turnover in those positions - in some cases for bush league stupidity, I understand.

Guess he thought, like many street cops, that anyone from the street had all the answers and no management experience was needed to operate a multi-million dollar, 2,000 plus employee organization.

But he has been working hard on the political side of the equation with much public glad-handing (he IS a politician!). Too bad the unions seem to be looking for another candidate to support. They aren't happy that he won't sign (appropriately so, IMHO) the cop's "bill of rights". :~)

Anonymous said...

I guess many more than zero aint all that hard to believe.


Hook Em Horns said...

Garcia does have his "issues", no doubt about it but he is still much better than the corruption that had the office before.

Garcia needs to get real on the issue of incarceration and jail over crowding, issues his past as a street-cop, may have problems getting used to.

Like most voters here, I say NO MORE MONEY for JAILS in Harris County. Enough is enough. Find a better way to handle people and if it means changing how you do business, you damn well better get to it.