May 06, 2008
The jail overcrowding blues, part whatever

It's the same old story.

With the Harris County Jail already filled to the brim and an influx of inmates expected this summer, the sheriff's department is asking Commissioners Court for permission to send another 1,130 more inmates to Louisiana facilities.

Harris County already incarcerates 600 inmates at a private detention center in northeast Louisiana at a cost of $9 million a year.

The proposal on today's agenda calls for sending 130 more inmates to that facility and negotiating with other lockups for another 1,000 beds on an as-needed basis. At $38 per inmate per day, those additions could bring the annual cost for incarcerating inmates outside Harris County to $24 million.

For purposes of comparison, that token property tax cut from last year is costing the county $25 million a year.

As of Monday, a little more than 11,000 inmates were being housed in the jail's four facilities, sheriff's department spokesman Capt. John Martin said.

The Harris County Jail is certified to hold a maximum of 9,400 inmates. The state jail commission temporarily has authorized the detention of 2,000 more inmates on so-called "variance beds," nonstandard metal frame bunks on the floor. The county originally was granted permission for 1,000 extra bunks last year, but has had to ask for increases several times in the past year, Martin added.


The county began shipping inmates to the West Carroll Detention Center in Epps, La., last summer in what was described as an emergency measure for dealing with a seasonal surge in the inmate population.

But the population never declined, as it typically does in the fall and winter, Martin said, forcing officials to scramble for space as another summer approaches.

To meet staffing requirements, the Sheriff's Office spent $29 million for overtime at the jail in the fiscal year that ended in February. Most guards are working double shifts more than once a week, Martin said, raising concerns about their health and safety.

"It's a huge concern for us the number of hours that people can physically work without just becoming burnt out or before they get to a point where they're not really as aware as we need for them to be on the job," he said.


Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said the proposal appears to be the only viable option. But she said she also thinks there needs to be a full-scale review of the criminal justice system, from arrest and booking to prosecution and sentencing.

"That's a lot of money for short-term solutions," she said.

I think we've covered this subject pretty thoroughly, so I'll try to avoid giving that dead horse any more lashes. But if Commissioners Court decides it really does want to take these out-of-control costs seriously, here's a recent reminder from the Chron as to one step that could have been taken all along:

Over the past 15 years, the use of personal bonds has all but disappeared in low-grade felony cases. Most Harris County district court judges say they would consider them for the right defendant, but the numbers suggest the "right" defendant rarely appears.

It has not always been this way. In 1994, personal bonds accounted for the release of almost 9,000 people from the Harris County Jail, including more than 1,800 facing low-grade felony charges, frequently drug possession.

A decade later, only 109 felony defendants were let out of jail without posting a cash bond. By 2007 that number was up slightly -- to 153 -- which translates into less than one half of one percent of the 36,176 people in jail interviewed by pretrial services officers.

That right there would be enough to solve the problem and save us all millions of dollars. We can still do something about it, so as to ensure this expensive outsourcing of inmates really is a short-term solution and not an ongoing occurrance. The answers are well known. We just have to apply them.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 06, 2008 to Crime and Punishment
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