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Sheriff to try again for new jail facility

Sheriff Adrian Garcia wants to take another crack at building a new jail facility. As was the case in 2007, when a referendum to float bonds for a new jail was voted down, this too would be voted on by the public. Garcia recognizes he has work to do to make it happen.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Court is scheduled to consider County Budget Officer Dick Raycraft’s recommendation that his office, the sheriff’s department and the Public Infrastructure Department tackle the jail problem. The result, Raycraft said, could be a recommendation to the court in June to put a jail bond measure on the November 2010 ballot.


Garcia pledged to be an active participant in the campaign by educating voters on the need for new facilities. In addition, he said, a new bond measure likely would come with the approval of the county’s new Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council was formed earlier this year to bring together elected officials to find ways to alleviate jail overcrowding.

Garcia’s plan would establish a new booking center that could hold 2,193 prisoners. It would have about 1,200 beds and capacity to hold another 1,000 people for the processing involved in being booked into or released from jail.

Garcia said the current facility is stretched far beyond capacity.

“I’m concerned about the safety of my employees, as well as the safety of the people we’re processing,” he said.

My position on this has not changed. Rather than repeat myself, I’m going to reprint an email sent by Alan Bernstein, Sheriff Garcia’s Director of Public Affairs, to Carl Whitmarsh in response to a previous email that criticized the Sheriff for pursuing a new jail:

When it comes to the county’s long-range planning for its entire criminal justice system, this is not the time for critics to shoot first and ask questions later..

First of all, the discussion of the potential construction of a new Central Processing Center is being promulgated by County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, and Sheriff Garcia is glad the subject is being broached.

Second, what my friend David Jones refers to as a jail is a facility primarily intended to take in and release jail inmates for the city of Houston and the county. (Note the title of the facility). Taking over the city’s booking operation, and having the city reimburse the county for doing so, would eliminate duplicative efforts and spending for both governments. Yes, this facility would also include functions that most think of as jail housing functions, such as better facilities for mentally ill inmates and a separate housing area for many female inmates. But, as supporting documents show, the Central Processing Center will not, and is not intended to, solve the county’s jail population problem by adding new beds. Raycraft’s proposal actually states that the construction proposal would have to be interwoven with the efforts of the new Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to reduce jail population through policy changes at the prosecutorial and judicial level as well as elsewhere.

In other words, the sheriff hopes that the number of inmates sent to him will decrease, but we still need a new processing center.

Third, one of the problems with the bond referendum for such a facility in 2007 is crystal clear in David’s e-mail. It was widely understood to merely be another jail space. This was unfortunate, because the facility primarily is meant for something else, as explained above.

Fourth, the current inmate processing center at the county jail is woefully outmoded, including being cramped with incoming inmates. The sheriff has explained that this creates a potential safety problem for inmates and staff. These are conditions that David and others, I trust, would never condone.

So there you have it. Clearly, as noted in the story, there needs to be a much better effort to communicate what this facility is for. Showing real progress in reducing the inmate population through better bail and probation policies would go a long way as well. Note further that we are apparently headed in the direction of eliminating the city’s jail facility, which is in line with stated objectives of each of the remaining Mayoral candidates. That too will bear watching over the next year as the county readies this proposal for a vote.

UPDATE: Grits pushes back, and spells out what should be done to reduce the inmate population.

UPDATE: Alan Bernstein works a little overtime by leaving the following comment on that Grits post:

So much misinformation!

The new Central Processing Center would not add 2,500 beds. It would add about half that, and reserve most of those for special facilities for females and mentally ill inmates. Its prime function would be booking and releasing for the county and for the city, which would pay the county to take over those functions. Inmates would be sent to existing beds faster, and would be released faster when their jail stay is over. A new front door is not a new bedroom, si?

The current processing center is overrun, cramped, outmoded – presenting an unsafe situation that no one wants. The new facility would never “build our way out” of a jail population problem. The sheriff, the county budget director and others involved acknowledge that by 2014, when this new facility would open, there will have to be new policies in place across the entire justice system to avert a continuing inmate population then. Fortunately, all of those things are already under discussion.

The sheriff is moving forward on multiple fronts. George Parnham, chairman of the sheriff’s mental health advisory committee, last month briefed Commissioners Court about plans for a Reintegration Center for the mentally ill, as an example. But we have to plan now to avoid a continuation of the problems we already have with an outmoded, too-small inmate processing center.

The sheriff has not rejected “cite-and-release” but wants to make sure it would make things better, not backfire, before seriously considering it.

The jail has no “immigrant detainees” other than those who would be there as non-immigrants dealing with criminal charges under state law. The county jail does not house inmates solely because they are facing immigration charges.

The public defender’s office, new bonding policies and other ideas, all of which are beyond the sheriff’s authority, are also being considered already.

What has changed since the “jail” (wrong title, to be fair) bond was rejected in 2007 besides there now being a new sheriff? For one, there is now a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council of 11 elected officials who are hashing out the ideas presented on this blog. Many of these officials are restless and eager to move forward.

UPDATE: And here’s Grits’ response to Bernstein’s comment.

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  1. John Smith says:

    For clarification, the CPC option being considered WILL include 2,193 total beds (medical, mental health, special needs, females, short-term and workforce housing) AND space designed to process (intake/release) over 1,000 prisoners daily. The proposed CPC building will consist of seven floors and encompass 605,000 square feet. This is not new information (see Commissioners Court agendas – and supporting documentation – from July and August 2008).

    The jail count averaged around 11,300 this year, and the current design capacity of the Harris County Jail system is only about 9,400. The Sheriff’s Office has about 800 inmates on temporary beds and another 1,100 housed in out-of-county contract jails. As far as diversion efforts, let’s face facts: Even if Harris County could magically reduce the jail population by 15% TODAY, the inmate count would still exceed the jail design capacity.

    Over the last twenty years, Harris County has grown by 40% (about 2% annually) and, based on census data, the local population is projected to exceed 5 million by late 2023. The previous Sheriff (Tommy Thomas – a Republican) and the current Sheriff (Adrian Garcia – a Democrat) both saw the reality of the situation. While it is not politically popular to advocate a new processing/jail facility, both men (to their credit) did so because Harris County absolutely needs this facility.

    Let’s address current & future inmate processing and jail housing needs, and consolidate all city/county jails operations, by building the proposed CPC. We can do it ourselves, or just ignore the problem and let the federal courts impose remedies even more expensive than the CPC. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Harris County Jail and the DOJ will take action if we fail to proactively address these issues.

  2. […] argues that the latest proposal to build a new processing center for the jail would result in a tax increase because of the need to […]