Sunday, May 01, 2011

Reduce Harris County Jail costs through smarter policies

An op/ed in the Houston Chronicle ("Let's reduce jail crowding," May 1) suggests reducing pretrial detention to cut costs at the Harris County Jail, making this commonsense argument:
The late U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist stated, "In our society liberty is the norm and detention prior to trial is the carefully limited exception." With a jail population of more than 10,000, Harris County jails more than Dallas and Tarrant counties combined. What is controversial, and perhaps unconstitutional, is the number of people in jail who have not been convicted of the crime for which they are held. They are in jail because they don't have the money to get out. In October 2010, of 10,401 county inmates, 6,669 were being held before trial. Due to these pretrial inmates, Harris County must send more than $17 million in local taxpayer money to Louisiana and other Texas counties annually to lock up people from our jail. For those in Harris County, we pay between $45 and $65 per day, per inmate. Is this truly the best use of limited county resources?
Whether someone can make bail, the authors point out, may have nothing to do with their relative dangerousness if released: "Those arrested for a crime able to raise funds for a set bond amount are released even though they may present a public safety threat. If a person arrested does not have the funds for a financial bond, they must remain in jail until the case is disposed of, unless they are released on a personal bond. At the discretion of the judge, Harris County Pretrial Services is available to supervise offenders who are given a personal bond."

The writers hone in on racial disparities resulting from requiring bail of low-level offenders, a circumstance which may stem from overt racism but more likely represents a marker for class disparities:
Harris County statistics show that there is significant racial disparity in pretrial release practices. While 70.3 percent of whites arrested for a misdemeanor offense were released on a bond, only 51.6 percent of Hispanics were released on a bond and only 45.4 percent of African-Americans were released on a bond.

The incarceration of poor, mostly minority offenders while they await the disposition of their cases costs our county millions of dollars. The costs come at a time when we are laying off county law enforcement officers, have fewer prosecutors in each court to try serious cases and are short more than 300 Harris County sheriff's deputies.
Grits has been hammering away at this theme on Harris County jail crowding for many years. Nearly everywhere in Texas where you find an overcrowded jail, in fact, you'll find excessive pretrial detention. And where pretrial detention rates are lower, counties don't generally face jail overcrowding problems.

In fact, given what's happening at the Texas Legislature, it would behoove the Harris County justice system to get its act together sooner than later, reducing crowding pressure to focus scarce resources on higher-risk offenders and the growing influx of mentally ill people who end up in the jail. The Harris County Jail has grown into the largest provider of mental health services in the state, we're reminded in a related Chron staff editorial, which argues that "Texas lawmakers aren't being fiscally prudent when they slice already grossly inadequate funding for mental health programs. They're simply passing the buck to counties and cities that have their own budget woes."

These trends have already been converging and may come to a head in the coming year. If and when state mental health cuts hit, if the Harris County Jail hasn't already reduced its baseline cost/incarceration rate in a deliberate, methodical way, it will almost inevitably be forced to do so in crisis mode in a way that will be a lot worse for public safety. Jail expansion IMO is the wrong solution, and in fact what we're seeing in these articles is evidence that the jail is overused for pretrial detention and the mentally ill. The trend toward mass incarceration, in Houston as statewide, has grown unsustainable without local tax increases that the public generally doesn't support.

RELATED: From Prison Legal News, "PR bonds plummet in Harris County."


Robert Boyd said...

I've heard that electronic ankle bracelet monitors are the logical fix for this, but that the bail bonds industry had lobbied hard to prevent this technology from being used.

JC said...

Fuggit. You get processed afer 5pm, you're going in front of a robo-judgethta defaults to decline. It's popular among the constabulary to nab folks coming off work for wareents for supportpayments. Those are only heard on Thursdays. Lottsa dangerous deadbeats out there, y'know. So the poor dumb SOB gets locked up for at least a week. Evewn if he's released on recog, he still is in stir until 5 minutes past midnight in the early hours of Saturday morning. If the poor f*ck still has a job on onday, he's still lost a week's income.
But, it's like, for the children, right? Or it least it looks like we vare, and clears some files. Low hanging fruit, and such.

Anonymous said...

Why don't they use pretrial as originally intended instead of a mini-probation office as they do in Harris County? If they meet the criteria for bond, pay a small percentage of bond cost and get out of jail. The people who can't afford a bond and an attorney are generally the people who need a Pretrial bond the most. Harris County judges think they are being soft on crime if they allow someone to actually bond out using Pretrial. Their idea of justice is getting their dockets down by getting a plea out of someone on the the PIA. They are still in a contest with former judge Ted Poe who got his docket down by 12.44A and early terminating probation cases in December of each year.

titfortat said...

The answer is simple (lower the bonds), but let’s not do that when we can spend tax dollars to create more government involvement.
The reporter(s) argument to save tax dollars is to spend tax dollars, (a lot of tax dollars), instead of cash for clunkers, they want cash for criminal welfare. Poorly constructed, poorly supervised criminal welfare that is poorly implemented by government employees whose concern is their paycheck and healthcare benefits which are both much more substantial than the rest of us and their responsibility is absolutely (zero).
Why is the only answer always to spend money we do not have?
What the hell is wrong with lowering the bond requirements? That could be done and Harris County wouldn’t even have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for outside help to (study) the problem.
People will not sit in jail if they can get out and they do, but for those whose bonds are ridiculously high they can’t.
Judges set high bail for a multitude of valid reasons and pretrial has a pitiful appearance track record for low level offenders with low bail, their ability to show better results with those who present a much higher flight risk potential makes the cash for criminal welfare an even bigger potential failure.
Private enterprise has real money on the line and they do not care if it is a large amount or small amount of money they still perform well at a cost of nothing to tax payers, in fact they (pay in) when their performance fails. Government never (ever) pays, they take and take and take some more, and always with lousy results.
Just lower the bonds and stop trying to spend our money!!!! Please…..
All class C misdemeanors taken to the Harris County Jail are being released now and have been for a very long time, the result has been the spending of ridiculous amounts of money for arrest, incarceration, courts and release with nothing, (zero), coming back in to the system.
Before this marvelous plan to help relieve jail overcrowding went into place, millions of dollars were generated through the prosecution of these scofflaws. And, these people typically made bail immediately and were released within a few short hours.
Now, these same people that had little if any impact on actual jail overcrowding issues due to longevity of incarceration cannot get released within a few short hours, they are stuck in jail for at least 24 hours.
Please stop trying to fix things, its hard telling how many of these people could have gone in and out of the jail without a hitch, then made it to work on time instead of possibly being fired or losing income because they couldn’t get out of jail.
Government is not the answer please stop trying to shove their help down our throats …. We just can’t afford their wonderful help anymore.

Anonymous said...

Lowering bonds, means lowering the 10% fee to the bondsman.