August 21, 2007
The warped lock-em-up mentality

There's much to be said about this article regarding our statewide prison overcrowding epidemic and the muleheadedly stubborn refusal by some DAs and sheriffs to think constructively about the problem. Grits has already done most of the heavy lifting, but there are a couple of points I'd like to make.

Beginning Sept. 1, local communities will have the option of ticketing, rather than sending to jail, most nonviolent Class B misdemeanor offenders.


Texas counties are coming dangerously close to running out of jail beds, a little more than a decade after the last major jail construction boom, which occurred as the state was embarking on a prison buildup.

Some 29,000 county jail beds were added between 1990 and 1995, bringing the total to 64,000 in 1995.

But tougher laws and a growing population have filled those local jails, which now house about 73,000 offenders statewide, from shoplifters who may be awaiting trial or serving short sentences to accused killers. The total number of beds stands at 84,000.

Fifty-two new jails are being constructed or are in the planning stages.

But in the meantime, 39 percent of the 246 county jails across Texas are overcrowded, which the state defines as being at 85 percent capacity or higher. (Jails must have more beds than inmates because of the need to separate violent felons from nonviolent offenders, and women from men).

Almost 27 percent of jails are at least 90 percent full (Bexar County stands at 98 percent capacity; Harris County at 97 percent).


Harris County District Attorney Chuck Rosenthal doesn't support the new law and has warned local law enforcement chiefs that his office won't prosecute anyone who's been ticketed for a Class B misdemeanor.

I seem to recall that Rosenthal's predecessor and mentor, Johnny Holmes, used to say that it's the Legislature's job to write laws, and his job to enforce them. At least, that was the rationale he gave for prosecuting the sodomy case that eventually became the Lawrence v. Texas ruling instead of simply choosing to ignore a law that he didn't like or didn't agree with. Apparently, Rosenthal does not subscribe to that point of view. Who needs a Legislature when we have Chuck Rosenthal telling us what the law should be?

And then there's this:

Fort Bend County Sheriff Milton Wright left it at this: "I think a crook's ass ought to be in jail."

Translation: "I have no regard for cost. I want to lock people up because that's what I've always done, and if that means you have to raise taxes or incur debt to accommodate me and my inflexibility, that's your problem. I'm the only budget priority that matters." Well, at least now we know where we all stand. Thanks for that.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on August 21, 2007 to Crime and Punishment