November 27, 2006
Who we're paying to lock up

Local attorney Randall Kallinen, who was a candidate for judge in Harris County this year, has an op-ed in the Sunday Chron about the makeup of the Harris County jail population.

The Harris County jail has reached 102.31 percent of capacity, 9,660 inmates, as of Oct. 1. That is about 1,000 more inmates than mandated by the state (90 percent capacity is the rule).

The county wants to spend $267 million for construction of new jails that will take many millions of dollars more to operate each year. While Harris County and the city of Houston struggle to hire qualified peace officers, these proposed jails threaten to divert hundreds of new peace officers to the job of warehousing inmates. Flawed criminal justice policy, not crime, is the cause of our jail overcrowding.

Only 1,297 jail inmates (around 14 percent of the total jail population) are convicted misdemeanor offenders serving their sentence. There are more than three times that many not yet convicted, just waiting for trial - more than 4,000 pretrial detainees.


The Harris County jail is also holding 1,319 state jail felons as compared to an additional 577 for the entire rest of the state. Why won't the state take them? Maybe it is because Harris County is the state's per capita leader in jailing trace drug cases, such as empty cocaine vials.


Harris County has a growing population categorized as "others" that fits into no listed category of jail inmates as reported by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Last August, the county held 799 "others" and in September this grew to 940 - the largest per capita amount anywhere in the state. Many of these "others" are people sentenced to drug treatment who are languishing in jail, often for many months, waiting to start their treatment.

All of this is of course familiar to those of you who read Grits for Breakfast. Basically, we can continue to spend millions of dollars to imprison up to seven times as many people as we need to, or we can try to figure out a smarter way of spending our tax dollars. Even people like Judge Mike McSpadden think the "lock 'em up first and ask questions later" approach is broken. When will the folks who spend all this money catch up?

By the way, speaking of Grits, he notes that despite Texas' high incarceration rate, we still have more crime per capita than the national average? One state that does better than average is New York, even though they lock up far fewer people. Coincidence? I don't think so.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on November 27, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

We have one George W. Bush to thank for the fact that people are languishing in jail for getting caught with empty cocaine vials - a crime he almost certainly committed himself when he was "young and irresponsible."

Realistically, nobody (neither Bush nor anyone else) should have to serve time for such a piddling offense. But of course, in Texas we constantly have to prove we're "tough" (a euphemism for mean and nasty) - a lesson which has served Bush especially poorly since he became President.

The relationship between crime and incarceration rates is complex. Certainly nobody thinks that we could minimize crime by doing away with incarceration entirely! But it seems likely that having locked up large numbers of small-time offenders in the past has increased the crime rate we face today. Instead of rehabilitating them, we've instead chosen to turn them into hard-core career criminals! The end result is identical to the effect of Abu Ghraib and Gitmo on terrorism: the exact opposite of what was intended.

Posted by: Mathwiz on November 27, 2006 2:55 PM