I've blogged before about a proposed $900 million county bond package that would go towards various courthouse/jail/family law projects. One of my concerns has been that the underlying issue of a serious guard shortage at the county jail needs to be addressed for this to make any sense at all. So I'm glad to see that the issue is being discussed, though I'm still not sure it's being addressed.
For years, Harris County officials have been criticized for failing to hire enough guards to keep their jails adequately staffed -- a problem that has led to crowding and reprimands by state authorities that monitor jail conditions.
Those same problems were noted in a report in May by the county's Public Infrastructure Department in preparation for a $900 million bond proposal -- the largest in the county's history -- that is expected to be placed before voters in November.
More than $250 million of it would be earmarked for the construction of a new inmate-processing center and a minimum-security jail. The report states that, after construction, unused space would be available for possible use by other law enforcement agencies.
"To achieve leased-capacity benefits, the HCSO must be able to staff the positions needed to operate any leasable capacity," the report states, referring to the Harris County Sheriff's Office. "Current staffing shortages highlight the importance of this assumption."
For years, Sgt. Richard Newby, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, has been critical of the staffing shortage. And he said the sheriff's office, which operates the jails, is still relying on massive amounts of overtime to staff the detention space it has now.
"The reality is that it's hard to hire a lot of people for this type of job, and we have a lot of vacancies," Newby said.
What I can tell is that we're still not having a serious discussion about the many ways that our county jail population can be reduced, which would not only be largely free to do but would also reduce our long-term costs and obviate the need for at least some of this bond debt. Why we're not having that discussion, well, that I can't tell.
Some fun facts about how we're dealing with the guard shortage:
The county spent about $18 million in overtime pay for jailers during the past fiscal year to reach that staffing goal. Last year, the county dedicated $22 million for hiring of 160 new guards, and raising starting annual pay for jailers by 15 percent to $32,200. Currently, 563 civilian detention officers and 680 deputies are assigned to the jail, according the HCSO.
Nevertheless, the sheriff's office continues to hemorrhage money through overtime payments. According to Newby, most jail guards are working at least two double shifts a week. In the first four months of the county's current fiscal year, the sheriff's office has already spent more than $6 million on overtime at the jail -- more than two-thirds of its dedicated overtime budget. If the overtime-spending trend continues, it would top last year's amount.
Other staffing problems are also looming. This week, the jail will lose 80 civilian guards. They are becoming part of the sheriff's office's next cadet academy class.
Many of the new hires have been offset by retirement, which may continue to hit the HCSO over the next two years, with approximately 180 guards and deputies soon becoming eligible for retirement, according to Newby.
Newby said that even if the bond proposal passes, the new jail space would not be available immediately -- which he says is "a good thing."
"Because if they did just pop up overnight," he said, "there's no way we could staff them with our current problems."