The jail chronicles

This is fitting, isn’t it?

The Harris County Jail held about 10,400 inmates — 1,000 beyond its capacity — Tuesday, the same day the Texas Commission on Jail Standards carried out its annual inspection of the lockup.

The figures appear in line with the conclusions of a national advocacy group that issued a report Tuesday decrying the growing number of inmates in U.S. jails and the effect it has on communities.

According to a Justice Policy Institute study, the number of people in American jails nearly has doubled since 1990 as the facilities detain more drug offenders, mentally ill and criminals sentenced to prisons.

The same trends have contributed to crowding in the Harris County Jail, leading it to be cited several times by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

The Justice Policy Institute report focused on the nation’s most populous counties and covered the decade from 1996 to 2006. According to the report, Harris County, the third-largest, incarcerated the fourth-highest number of inmates, 9,400, in 2006. That represented a 23 percent increase over 1996, when the county jail population was more than 7,700. That increase was the 12th biggest among the nation’s most populous counties, the report said.

The report is here (PDF). Thanks to Grits for the link.

Voters in the county last year defeated a bond that would have paid to build a $245 million, 2,500-bed jail in the downtown jail complex.

It would have included a vast area for health care and mental health care, officials said. It also would have included a larger, improved intake center where incoming detainees would be evaluated and placed in appropriate settings if they were found to be mentally ill.

In June, the Commissioners Court will consider whether to ask voters to approve a bond for a smaller jail than the one rejected last November, [Dick Raycraft, county budget and management services director] said.

Detention costs in the county continue to rise. Two years ago, the county spent $154 million on detention, Raycraft said.

This year, it will spend $192 million, a 24 percent increase. The costs will continue to rise if the county builds more jails and hires the guards needed to operate them.

And I will continue to advocate a vote against these new-jail-construction bonds until the county demonstrates that it can get a handle on those rising costs. That means coming up with a plan to jail fewer people – and remember, we’re often talking about low-level drug offenders, people who can’t make bail, and people who have chosen jail time over probation because probation is so onerous. Which in turn may obviate the need for more jail space, though perhaps some of the other features, such as more resources for mentally ill inmates, would still be appropriate and needed. But without that, I say No.

UPDATE: More from Grits.

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