We’ve been down this road before.
For the first time in three years, the Harris County sheriff began transferring busloads of inmates this week to other correctional facilities to avoid overcrowding at the state’s largest jail.
The jail population is currently at 93 percent of its 9,434-bed capacity, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said Monday. He said part of the problem may stem from two recent back-to-back storms with flooding that delayed magistrate courts and consequently stalled the release of some low-level offenders.
Hickman also indicated that judges who set monetary bail for inmates have influenced the rising numbers because 62 percent of the jail’s occupants are awaiting trial.
The fluctuating jail population, he said, is out of his control. “In large part, the jail population is controlled by the courts, who determine which offenders will be released pending adjudication and which will be detained until trial,” Hickman said.
Hickman said another round of storms and flooding could cause the jail population to climb again.
“A singular event, like another bad rain and floodwaters, would cause us to shut courts down which would back prisoners up on the capacity side of our storage, and we’d be in violation of jail standards again,” he said.
The sheriff said he had very few options for dealing with the high numbers.
See here for previous blogging on this topic. This may be a temporary situation exacerbated by all the damn rain we’ve been having, but we wouldn’t be in this position if the overall jail population hadn’t been trending up. If we want to avoid being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the TDCJ and the weather gods, there are three things we can do.
1. Bail reform. There are too many people sitting in jail awaiting trial. Some of them belong there, but some of them don’t. Less onerous bail amounts, and more personal recognizance bonds, would solve this problem.
2. Expand Medicaid. OK, I know, there’s nothing Harris County can do about this, and our state leaders are a bunch of deranged lunatics on the subject. Be that as it may, as we well know the Harris County Jail is the country’s largest mental health hospital. Many of the people in the jail getting treatment for mental illness can only get that treatment when they are in jail. You know what would change that? If they had health insurance. How could they get that insurance? If they were eligible for Medicaid. We’ve been over this before, too. The state of Texas and it’s Republican-fueled refusal to expand Medicaid are a big cause of Harris County’s jail overcrowding. Every taxpayer in the county is paying for that.
3. Review and possibly expand the existing early release and ankle monitor programs that were put in place by then-Sheriff Garcia and the courts. Direct deputies to issue citations instead of making arrests for minor violations. None of these would likely be very big, but every little bit helps, and they are options that Sheriff Hickman himself has some control over. Surely that’s worth consideration. Hair Balls has more.