June 18, 2008
Commissioners Court presses forward with scaled-down jail plan

Commissioners Court's "try, try again" plan for building a new jail is moving forward.

Harris County Commissioners Court may ask voters this fall to approve a bond proposal for a $144 million jail -- after the electorate rejected plans for a $245 million, 2,500-bed jail last November.

County administrators suggested Tuesday that the county not issue bonds to pay for the proposed $144 million downtown jail. But Commissioner Steve Radack urged the court to consider seeking voter approval for bonds, saying he was concerned that money that otherwise would go for roads and bridges would be used to pay for the jail.

The court asked the county budget and management office to report back in two months on whether the county could float a bond for the new jail.

"I'm not going to support a new jail unless you put a jail bond proposition before voters in November," Radack said.

I appreciate Commissioner Radack's concern. And I won't vote for any such bond until there is solid evidence that everyone in county government understands why we're in this particular situation, and vows to do something about it. In which case, of course, I seriously doubt we'll need to be building more jail space. But if it turns out that we do, that once we stop routinely locking up people who don't need to be locked up because we think we're being "tuff on crime" by doing so, then I'll reconsider. I don't see that happening here.

Other building projects discussed at the county's annual capital improvements meeting include a new Family Law Center.

The court voted to take the first steps toward obtaining a design of the $70 million courthouse on Franklin and San Jacinto, across the street from the current family law building. The project would require an additional $16 million for furniture and cables and $2.2 million to raze buildings now standing on the site of the future courthouse, officials said.

Commissioner Jerry Eversole said the court should wait until the budget and planning office reports back on whether the courthouse should be built on Franklin where the old county jail stands.

Voters approved bonds to pay for the family law center in November.

"The voters were clearly telling us to move forward," Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said.

They also pretty clearly said "No!" when it came to building more jail cells. I hope that message gets received and understood as well, but so far it's not looking like it.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on June 18, 2008 to Crime and Punishment

Isn't it unconstitutional for the commissioners to tell the district court judges what to do? That is in effect what we are complaining about right, that the commissioners won't tell the elected judges how to run their courts?

I didn't think any elected official could tell another what to do. The commissioners can allocate funds to a judge or a sheriff, but can't tell him what to do with the them right?

Also, I don't see the City writing citations for weed yet either, so they aren't blameless in this. And they could start doing it under state law and force the issue with the DA but haven't.

Posted by: Trafficnerd on June 18, 2008 4:29 PM

Trafficnerd - The district and criminal court judges in Harris County are certainly capable of deciding on their own to start making more and better usage of pretrial services, which would greatly reduce the number of people sitting in jail because they couldn't make bail. And I don't think it would be unconstitutional for Commissioners Court to point that out, or indeed to recognize it in the first place.

The point I'm making is that at every turn, instead of asking the question "Why are our jails overcrowded, and what can we do about it?", our county government has said "We need to build more jails". We don't have unlimited resources for this, and we shouldn't act as though we do.

Posted by: Charles Kuffner on June 19, 2008 8:42 AM