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Grits on the jail czar

When I blogged about the creation of a “jail czar” position in Harris County whose job it will be to deal with overcrowding in the local jails, I said hoped that Scott Henson would comment on it. He did leave a comment in the post, which he has since expanded on at his own blog.

From my perspective, the two biggest drivers at the Harris County Jail of both overcrowding and cost are excessive pretrial detention and the evolution of the jail into the county’s main mental health treatment facility, both of which will require more than “coordination” by a “czar” to fix.

That said, the solutions, at least, are fairly clear: 1) Convincing judges to expand the use of personal bonds instead of requiring bail for low-level offenses, and 2) expanding outpatient mental health services, housing and specialized community supervision through the probation department (including making sure they take their meds) for mentally ill offenders, particularly those who are frequently in and out of the jail on low-level offenses.

The first is almost purely a political problem of convincing local elected judges to change their bail decisions; the second is mostly an issue of resources, with responsibility lying chiefly at the feet of the county commissioners court and the local MHMR authority to provide community-based alternatives to jail.

I’ve asked the Harris County Sheriff’s PIO office for a copy of the consultant’s study that recommended creating the “czar” position, so I’ll have more on this subject after I finally review that document. The same consultant analyzed the Harris Jail four years ago and this Grits series adumbrated at that time many of the same recommendations about which the county is finally (apparently) getting serious now.

Perhaps having a former member of the judiciary (Caprice Cosper) as the czar will help to convince the current judges that a change in their bail-setting policies is needed. And since Commissioners Court hired Cosper in the first place, perhaps they’ll listen when she tells them to do something about mental health and mental retardation issues. I can hope, right?

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