Monday, October 21, 2013

Just don't call it a "jail"

Harris County and City of Houston officials learned in 2007 that voters don't want an expanded jail, so this year they're calling it something else. According to coverage from The Bond Buyer (Sept. 30):
Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the ballot proposal is “fundamentally different than what was asked a few years ago, which was about adding onto the county jail. This is a joint city-county project, and the public really appreciates the fact that the city and county are working together closely.”

At this point, likely voters appear to favor the inmate processing center, according to recent polls.

“Maybe it’s because we called it a joint inmate processing center as opposed to a jail, but that’s what’s on the ballot,” said Rice University Political Science professor Bob Stein.  “And more importantly, voters support this regardless of their perception of crime.”

Stein conducted polling for Houston stations KHOU and KHUF that showed 58% of respondents in favor of building the processing center, with 21% opposed.

The 2007 proposal for the jail and processing center was defeated, largely because African-Americans voted overwhelmingly against the measure, according to analysis of those results.

“In 2013, although 58% and by margins of 64 and 61 (percent) Anglos and Hispanics support this proposed initiative, African Americans oppose it slightly, 51-49,” Stein said.  “But I think a 58% margin is good; more importantly, there are no organized groups against this. So I think, the stars are aligned for this to pass and pass by a good margin.”

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia told KHOU the center would “take the City of Houston out of the jail business, quit the duplication of operations, save the taxpayers money and get cops back out on the street faster.”

The inmate processing center is one of the lower profile issues on the Nov. 5 ballot that will include the election of the Houston mayor and city council. The Houston city elections are likely to bring out more voters from within the city limits than will vote in the suburbs, officials said.
Grits has fewer reservations about the Harris County Jail expansion bonds on the November ballot than I did the 2007 bonds that Houston voters rejected. The Harris jail's overcrowding problem stems from poor decision making by judges more than a lack of capacity, but the jail's booking center does need revamping and I don't mind combining the city and county jail facilities, so long as the city cells actually close.

Still, avoiding the term "jail" on the ballot for jail bonds speaks volumes. Likely somebody polled the terms and figured out the public didn't support expanding the jail but does support processing inmates quicker, as do I. Grits just believes that goal would be better served by reducing pretrial detention, and the only option voters have for achieving that goal at the ballot box would be electing different judges.

MORE: See a Houston Chronicle editorial supporting the bonds.


Lee said...

Scott, most criminal court judges believe that defendants can easily access funds for bond out of their personal wealth according to a set bail schedule that they use.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

If that's true, Lee, given the proportion of defendants declared indigent for purposes of securing counsel, that's a particularly odd cognitive dissonance to think defendants are indigent when it comes to counsel but flush when it comes to making bail.

To sample alternative hypotheses, perhaps those judges believe either a) it's easier for the DA to secure plea bargains and move their dockets with the Ds in jail or b) they believe they'd prefer not to give their friends in the commercial bail industry reasons to avoid giving campaign contributions or even to finance opposing candidates.

claitor said...

At the recent Forum on Pretrial Justice Reform in DC, it was pointed out that out of the millions of Americans being held pretrial in local jails, some 21% are being held there for lack of a $1000 or less. Losing jobs, families, homes because they are too poor to go even a low bail. Like Grits and Lee said, Texas judges might want to reconsider their roles in this destructive system.