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Grits visits the Harris County jail

Here’s a thoughtful post by Scott Henson on his visit to the Harris County jail and the proposed booking center, which was touted as a gateway primarily for arrestees with mental health issues. While acknowledging the need for more resources there, Scott hits upon an issue that I don’t think has gotten adequate discussion.

Both in booking and the mental health ward, I was told by several folks that the jail sees the same “repeaters” or “frequent flyers” over and over. The problem isn’t necessarily that the number of people sent to jail is increasing, in other words, but the same people are going to jail more often, too often.

At root, failures in community supervision are driving Harris County Jail overcrowding. Frequent flyers are almost all subject to the jurisdiction of the probation department, but intensive supervision and services clearly aren’t being applied, or at least applied effectively, to the most high-risk folks. There are just a few thousand people cycling in and out of the jail – many of them mentally ill, homeless, addicted, or with other major barriers to successful rehabilitation – who are primarily responsible for the demand for increased capacity. These folks generate high per-person costs over time but as a matter of policy (a de facto if not an intentional one), Harris County is spending money on them at the jail instead of seeking community-based alternatives.

How much cheaper would it be to focus on reducing the number of visits and lengths of stay by frequent flyers than to simply build more capacity to accommodate a dysfunctional system? Quite a bit, I suspect. That’s why IMO Harris County can’t build it’s way out of this problem: The same number of people can soak up a seemingly infinite amount of resources unless officials find smarter, more cost-effective ways to supervise them. Many folks, I was told (I’ve asked for an exact number), are processed through booking three or more times per year, and for a few of them the number is much higher.

Basically, what this says to me is that the problem is that we’re asking the criminal justice system to solve a problem that it’s not best suited to solve. Actually, we’re not so much asking them to solve it as we are leaving it to them to solve it because there are no other alternatives. We could have, as we once did, more public mental health facilities that would deal with these problems. We could have all kinds of other programs and outreaches and oversight, to ensure people with mental health problems had places to stay and access to medication (along with supervision to ensure they took their meds) and job placement counseling and so on and so forth. If we had these things, these so-called “frequent flyers” would likely not intersect with the justice system much more than the rest of the population, and in addition would likely be a lot more productive and self-sufficient. They’d be net contributors rather than primarily consumers of public services. I absolutely agree with Scott that in the long term, this would be vastly less expensive for the county, the state, and the federal government.

But we don’t have these sorts of programs or facilities. Anyone who proposed such a thing today would be ridiculed as a reckless spender at a time when belts must be tightened. And so, in the name of austerity and “fiscal responsibility”, we spend a ton more money dealing with these poor souls by putting them in a system that can’t help them, which ensures they keep coming back. Hell of a thing, isn’t it? It’s not how things have to be, it’s our choice it’s this way.

I don’t know what the best answer is. I’m sure some combination of federal, state, and local money would be needed for stuff like this, but I don’t even know how you’d get started. I don’t know what infrastructure already exists and needs to be utilized, and what doesn’t exist and needs to be invented. What I do know is that what we have now isn’t working, and that if I had a choice I’d prefer to see more of my tax dollars go to solutions outside the criminal justice system. The Sheriff’s proposal, which won’t be on the ballot this year anyway, is an improvement over the status quo, and it may be the best we can do until such time as we’re ready to try something truly different. Grits thinks there are still problems and that what’s been proposed is still a de facto expansion of the jails. You should read his piece for his argument; at this point I can’t say I disagree. For sure, we’re still not doing nearly enough to reduce the overall inmate population, which would ameliorate those concerns. If we can take those steps, I’ll be very happy to continue that conversation. If this is the best we can do, let’s do the best we can with it.

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  1. Katharine says:

    Great artilces by Kuff and Grits. However, Houston is trying to do something to help the “frequent flyers”. The article in the Houston Press “Houston’s Craziest” from last December describes an innovative collabortive effort of the City of Houston and MHMRA.

  2. […] the comments to my previous post about mental illness and the criminal justice system, reader Katherine reminded me of this Houston […]

  3. […] the Kuff wrote about the problems of how we deal with the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, and a pilot program in Houston to handle the “chronic […]

  4. […] the Kuff wrote about the problems of how we deal with the mentally ill in the criminal justice system, and a pilot program in Houston to handle the “chronic […]