March 08, 2008
Feds investigating Harris County jails

This ought to be interesting.

Long criticized for its conditions and treatment of inmates, the Harris County Jail is under investigation by the Department of Justice civil rights division.

In a letter sent to Harris County Judge Ed Emmett on Friday, the department said the probe would determine whether the jail is operating under unlawful conditions.

Though a spokeswoman at Justice declined to say why the federal authorities are investigating, the jail has been criticized for overcrowding, poor ventilation and sanitation, as well as questionable access to medical treatment and prescription drugs.

Last year, the Chronicle reported that more than 100 inmates died in the jail between January 2001 and December 2006. There were 11 deaths in the first three months of last year, compared with 22 in all of 2006.

The county reduced overcrowding last year by sending inmates to a private Louisiana jail.

If the Justice investigation finds violations, federal officials will suggest ways to improve jail conditions. If those recommendations are not met, federal law allows the attorney general to sue the county.

Friday's letter, written by an acting assistant attorney general, also said the investigation will end if authorities conclude there are no "systemic violations of constitutional or other federal rights."

Here's the letter they sent. As you can see, it says they have "not reached any conclusions", and it sounds more cordial than threatening. I feel confident they'll find problems, it's just a matter of whether or not they're serious, and easily fixable.

The issue of overcrowding in our jails is an old familiar one, so I'll save a little time and refer you to Grits from today and from 2005 for the background. There are two important things to remember here. One is that the jails doesn't have to be overcrowded. Different policies for things like bail and probation revocation could make a huge difference, and save a bunch of money, without adding any substantial risk to public safety. And two:

Last November, Dallas County's sheriff struck a deal that set new policies in those areas.

Like Harris County, that jail mostly housed pretrial inmates who had not been convicted of crimes.

That means that a nontrivial number of people who are subjected to this are people who aren't actually criminals. Some of these folks will come out with the same clean record they had going in. Many will come out with at most a misdemeanor plea. How many of them really need to be locked up? It's our choice.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on March 08, 2008 to Crime and Punishment
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)