Saturday, January 07, 2012

Harris County crime reduction undeterred by 31% fewer jail inmates

News of Houston's lowest murder rate in decades coincides with a seemingly a counter-intuitive report that the Harris County Jail population has declined 31% in the last three years.

Long-time readers will recall that, in a 2007 plebiscite, despite overcrowding and hundreds of prisoners housed in contract facilities as far away as Louisiana, Harris County voters rejected the issuance of debt for new jail construction. Writers like Grits and the Texas Public Policy Foundation's Marc Levin argued that policy changes by elected officials - particularly the District Attorney and judges - could resolve the problem a) without expensive new jail construction and b) without crime increasing, and it turned out that's exactly what's happened. Reports the Houston Chronicle's Mike Morris this morning ("Thanks to less crowding, overflow inmates staying in Harris"):
Dropping inmate numbers at the Harris County Jail will let the county end its nearly 5-year-old practice of shipping overflow inmates to Louisiana and other Texas counties within days, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said this week.

The jail population has fallen 31 percent since 2008, to 8,573 inmates. The jail has a capacity of 9,434, but has at times held more than 12,000. Garcia hopes the expense of contracts with far-flung jails - totaling $31 million in the last two years - has ceased for the foreseeable future.

As of Friday, the sheriff had no inmates in Louisiana and just 21 elsewhere in Texas; more than 1,600 inmates had been outsourced as recently as June 2010.
Grits finds this news downright incredible after being told time and time again by so many in offiicialdom how naive I was to oppose Harris County jail construction and how unrealistic it was to expect local officials to change. My position at the time was, "if you build it, they will come"; new jail construction, Grits argued, would accommodate bad policies while jail crowding forced the system's collective managers to confront them. So I'm particularly encouraged by indications that Harris County judges are now acknowledging their role in the problem and attempting to help resolve it. A defense attorney:
praised the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and said judges are beginning to examine their pretrial and sentencing choices.

State District Judge Jan Krocker, who will be opening a court for mentally ill offenders within weeks, agreed.

"Making your community safe in terms of both violent crimes and property crimes involves not only pronouncing appropriately long sentences, but also in rehabilitating those people who can be rehabilitated," Krocker said. "A lot of us are working a lot harder at that."
Good news, indeed. A big chunk of the decline stems from the DA's new policy on how to charge drug paraphernalia, which has drawn heat from police unions but praise from nearly every other corner of the justice system. (Clearly the change hasn't spawned some great crime wave.) But the story also mentions other initiatives that contributed to the jail population decline:
The county has launched various diversion programs. In April 2010, Garcia began allowing nonviolent inmates who enroll in educational or work programs to earn three days' credit for each day served. As of mid-December, 3,661 inmates had been released early under the program, which can shave up to two months off the maximum county jail sentence.

Garcia also noted that 48 people have been diverted from jail by the county's Crisis Intervention Response Team. That program, approved in August, pairs police with mental health clinicians to respond to crises among the mentally ill, hoping to treat them rather than jail them. The sheriff also has tested a program allowing some low-level offenders to serve their sentences at home while wearing an ankle monitor.
For a county the size of Harris - whose jail at its largest was more populous than more than half the states' prison systems - a 31% incarceration reduction in three years is a remarkable achievement, made even more impressive when one realizes that crime rates have continued to plummet and the county has only scratched the surface of possible de-incarceration reforms.

There's still a great deal more to do. Local law enforcement agencies in Harris County don't use discretion granted them by the Legislature to issue summons instead of arresting for certain low-level misdemeanors. And to the extent a new mentality has caused judges to reduce pretrial detention, it's certainly only just begun, in only a few courtrooms. Bail is still the rule for most offenses and pretrial services remains the red-headed step-child of the county justice system, despite anguished cries from the bail industry over even marginal expansion in the use of personal bonds.

This impressive rate of de-incarceration shows that all the "can't get there from here" naysayers were blowing smoke, that the county could incarcerate a LOT fewer people without crime rates worsening. IMO there's still a lot of slack to take up. Now that the county is no longer outsourcing inmates, the next question becomes, how long till the county can reduce the jail population enough so the facility can be run without using substantial overtime? Counties can achieve significant budget relief through de-incarceration, just as overincarceration inevitably becomes a budget burden. Hopefully, Harris County will continue down this path, both for the benefit of its own citizenry and as an example inspiring other Texas counties to rethink their approaches. It's about time!

I don't think the county could possibly have reached this point if they'd expanded jail capacity; there'd have simply been no incentive for change.

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