Friday, November 19, 2010

Increased Harris County Jail costs, inmate numbers third highest in nation over last decade

The blog Hair Balls from the Houston Press says that "In an era when locking fewer people up and spending less on jails seems to make sense and is rapidly becoming en vogue, Harris County was increasing its spending and putting more folks behind bars than nearly any other populous county in the country, according to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust."

Pew says Harris County's jail expenditures increased by a greater percentage than all but two metropolitan jails in the country: Philadelphia, PA, which has its own longstanding issues, and Maricopa County (Phoenix), where Sheriff Joe Arpaio's shenanigans drove up costs 106% from 1999 - 2009, compared to 34% in Houston. New York City's jail costs declined by 5% over the same period.

Harris County also ranked third highest in jail population growth over the same period, with inmate numbers growing 46% compared to 49% in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. By comparison, New York City reduced its average jail population by 24%, and Atlanta's declined by 20%. So some jurisdictions have found a way to reverse the one-way ratchet that continues to increase incarceration levels even when crime is declining.

Hair Balls notes that "Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, says the stats in the study are correct but draws attention to the period covered, which is almost entirely before Garcia's term began. Since then, he notes, jail population and jail spending has decreased." The truth is, though, how many people get sent to the jail and when they get out are largely factors beyond the Sheriff's control.

Here's a link (pdf) to Pew's study, "Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Cost," findings from which may not surprise long-time Grits readers:
What lies behind the rising and falling number of inmates in jails? The number of arrests is one factor. But in many places, the size of the jail population is determined largely by a series of policies and procedures that answer the following questions:

• Who should be detained prior to trial, and who should be allowed to remain in the community while his or her case proceeds?
• How long does it take to try a case?
• Are other sanctions besides jail time used to punish those who break the rules governing their probation or parole?
• Which convicted inmates serve out their sentences in the local jail and which are sent to state prisons?
I've been singing this song for years in posts titled things like "Needless pretrial detention main cause of Harris jail overcrowding," and consultants have been pointing out the same problems in Houston for the last half decade. Indeed, in many Texas counties the rates of pretrial detention are even higher.

Concludes the report: “The stakes for these reforms are high. 'You could drop [the jail population] by 10, and if it’s the wrong 10, the city is going to be more dangerous,' says Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles H. Ramsey. 'You could also probably drop the population by 1,000 without impacting public safety—but what matters is who those 1,000 people are and what we’re doing with them.'”

RELATED: Earlier this week, the House County Affairs Committee met to discuss their Interim Charge (#3) to "Study county oversight related to pretrial release on bond in criminal cases." You can watch the hearing online here - the portion about pretrial detention begins about 3:34:14 - but the audio keeps going in and out on my computer. There should be something on pretrial detention in the committee's interim report, however.

See related Grits posts:


Alan Bernstein said...

Thanks for posting this. True, the number of people who are jailed, and the length of their stays, are largely beyond the sheriff's control. But Sheriff Garcia's expanding use of "earned" 3-for-1 sentence credits and several other initiatives has helped keep a lid on jail population; no coincidence that, in an underreported action, the sheriff this month "gave back" about 700 variance beds to the state jail commission. Also, better management of overtime has contributed to the correlating decrease in jail costs. -- Alan Bernstein

never.forget said...

Interesting post. For a real look at what is going on inside our jails and prisons a must read is "PRISON MADNESS" by Terry Kupfers. This tells the truth about how and why prisons have become warehouses for the mentally ill. Prisons are now responsible for creating more problems for society to deal with that they do to solve them. Today's New York Post has a small article on the inside, a report from the Department for Health and Human Services: One in five Americans are mentally ill. That explains the warehouses, but not the horrible and depraved treatment of the incarcerated. Read the book. You will be shocked.

Anonymous said...

How many probationers and parolees are sitting in the Harris County Jail?

Anonymous said...

As a criminal defense attorney, all I can say is thank you for the job security.

Thomas Hobbes said...

Just to slow Mr. Bernstein's spin a bit, the Harris County Sheriff didn't "give back" 652 variance beds out of the goodness of his heart.

The original 1,612 beds were granted as a one-year variance in November 2009. In part because of pressure applied to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards by Houston-area state legislators this past August, the Sheriff needed to demonstrate population reduction to the TCJS. Asking to renew only 60% of the variance beds proved to be more politically astute (or less stupid, depending on your POV) than asking to retain all of the variance beds.

The Sheriff and the County still have a lot of work ahead of them. The fair question is whether County officials are yet ready to begin pulling in the same direction in managing their criminal justice system. For all of the furor and dust that has been kicked up, relatively little real progress has resulted.

titfortat said...

It is amazing how often politicians are seemingly unable to see the forest because the trees are in the way, they will purposely play their own little game of monopoly with taxpayer’s money and ultimately increasing the size of government will somehow be seen as the only possible solution.

They will spend our money on research, they will bring in outside help to help them research and they will fund “non-profits” (as if nobodies making a profit from the non-profits) to help them research.

After they have researched they will reduce cost by increasing the payroll and we will get to pay for the salaries and healthcare and pension plans of more and more government employees which will in the end be much more costly than if they had just left things alone.

Stop is the answer, (STOP!), stop filing motions to revoke probation over technical violations, stop drug testing presumed innocent people, stop setting bail at ridiculous amounts, stop outrageous sentencing, stop issuing capias profine warrants on Class C’s so that people can continue paying their fines, stop arresting class C’s if all you are going to do is release them, stop researching and for Pete’s sake please STOP FIXING THE BUDGET BY ADDING TO IT!!!!

ttv said...

Wow! Another record for this time..

never.forget said...

Right on Thomas Hobbs! FOLLOW THE MONEY. We may find the criminal defense attorney there who is thankful for his "job security". Shame on him.

Hook Em Horns said...

Anonymous said...

As a criminal defense attorney, all I can say is thank you for the job security.

11/19/2010 06:27:00 PM
Stupid thing to say. You can hang out outside Baker Street and get plenty of business, idiot!