December 11, 2006
No more jails!

Three cheers for John Whitmire.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said there is no need for local government to spend at least $267 million building two jails when it could cut the inmate population at the county jail by allowing non-dangerous offenders out on bail before trial.

"I am very suspect whether there is a need for jail space," said Whitmire, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. "Harris County wouldn't have an overcrowding problem at all if it had an effective pretrial release program."

Whitmire said the Legislature, in the upcoming session, may look at ways to help reduce jail overcrowding, such as shorter sentences for some crimes.

Commissioners Court likely will ask voters next November to approve bonds for new jails that would add 4,600 beds.

County Judge Robert Eckels and other members of Commissioners Court said the jails are needed to reduce overcrowding now and in the coming decades.

According to the sidebar, the population of Harris County's jail is expected to grow by a little less than 4000 inmates by 2025. As it happens, that's about the number of pretrial detainees currently in the system. Four thousand people who haven't been convicted yet, but are being given room and board on the county's dime because they couldn't make or weren't granted bail. Some of them need to be right where they are, no doubt about it. But all of them? I rather think not.

I say we have all the jail space we need right now. We just need to manage it as if it weren't an infinite resource. I will not be voting for any jail construction bonds until I see some evidence that the District Attorney, the criminal court judges, and the Sheriff's office all get it. We can't plan for our future needs if our current usage is so far out of kilter. Shame on the Commissioner's Court for not being better fiscal stewards.

By the way, this is a statewide problem, too. We can keep spending more and more money to imprison more and more people for increasingly trivial matters, or we can accept the fact that doing so isn't doing us any good, and go from there. I for one think the choice is clear.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on December 11, 2006 to Crime and Punishment | TrackBack

Much as I admire Senator Whitmire, I do not forget for one minute that this is Texas and that our Legislature, Executive branch and courts are controlled by Republicans.

Jails - and lengthy sentences - are standard Republican orthdoxy. To even suggest otherwise, or to suggest that taxes be raised for pay the costs of incarceration - is political heresy. This legislature will deal with several draconian bills that will necessitate additional jail space and I, for one, don't doubt which way Republicans, and most Democrats, will vote.

Posted by: Dennis on December 11, 2006 4:20 PM