A number of factors put Harris County jail managers in the position of having to ship prisoners out of state to lower the inmate population. Some district judges continue to sentence convicted felons to serve their time in the county system, which as of Wednesday held nearly 10,000 prisoners, almost 1,000 over capacity. More than 1,200 of them could be serving their sentences in state prison.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has criticized the frequency with which jurists are sending convicts back to jail for minor parole violations. Gov. Rick Perry vetoed a bill passed by the Texas Legislature to allow such prisoners to make bail. Had it become law, about 500 jail inmates could have been released, making the planned transfer to Louisiana unnecessary and saving the county millions of dollars.
Sending Texas prisoners out of state also makes family visits more difficult and places at risk the inmates' eventual reintegration into society. A round trip from Houston to Epps can take up to 14 hours.
Warehousing Texas inmates in other states is not the way to ease jail overcrowding. Convicted felons should serve their time in state prisons, and minor parole violators should be released. Making better use of pretrial release programs for nonviolent offenders and new county facilities would provide a permanent solution.
[Reporter Steve] McVicker asserted that "Harris County officials have been criticized for failing to hire enough guards" and declares the alleged failure to be "a problem that has led to ... reprimands by state authorities."
McVicker failed to mention that law enforcement agencies nationwide are experiencing staffing shortages.
The Harris County sheriff's office is making significant improvements in its jail staffing. So far this calendar year, the sheriff's office has hired more new employees than in all of 2006.
Although the office has experienced some separations from employment recently, since last July, there has been a net gain of more than 160 new employees.
Further, while McVicker maintained that approximately 180 detention officers and deputies will become eligible for retirement in the next two years, employees do not always retire when they become eligible.
There are many employees who are eligible to retire who have no immediate plans to retire. What's more, the sheriff's office has no mandatory retirement age.
In short, the issue of retirement eligibility fails to provide evidence of the "looming" staffing crisis that McVicker suggests.