No support for a jail administrator

Not without the consent of the Legislature.


The idea of shifting leadership of the Harris County Jail to an administrator may be losing steam, several county leaders said Thursday after reviewing a feasibility study by the sheriff’s office.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack asked newly appointed Sheriff Ron Hickman in May to look into the possibility of appointing a jail head who would report to court members and run the facility with an independent budget.

While the report Hickman commissioned does not deliver a straightforward recommendation, the disadvantages it outlines – including transportation and accountability headaches – far outweigh the advantages. The largest obstacle is Texas law, which places responsibility for county jails with the sheriff.

Five years ago, Radack began angling for a jail administrator to oversee the 9,400-bed behemoth that houses the largest mental health patient population in the state and falls under the purview of a law enforcement officer, the county sheriff. County Attorney Vince Ryan explained in a legal brief then that splitting off the jail was not an option under the state constitution.


The 16-page report by Sheriff’s Lt. Eric Batton reviews various models of urban jails around the country – from Cook County, Ill., to Miami-Dade to Las Vegas – but concludes that for the jail “to operate as an autonomous and independent entity … Harris County would need to pursue tailoring legislation to provide a clear authority with a statute to establish such a department.”

In other words, without changes to state law, part of the job of the sheriff remains as overseer of the jail.

See here for the background. Basically, Lt. Batton’s report agrees with what Vince Ryan said back in May. It’s certainly possible that the county could ask the Lege to modify the laws in question, though I’m sure that folks like Sen. Whitmire would have an awful lot of questions if that happened. I’ll say again, if the county does want to pursue this, and Sheriff Hickman thinks it’s a good idea, then let’s hash it out in the Sheriff’s race next year, and let the result of that election stand as a proxy for whether or not this ought to be taken up. I’m far from sold on this idea, but I could be persuaded.

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2 Responses to No support for a jail administrator

  1. PDiddie says:

    WHAT!? Something Austin does not want to take away from local control?

    Could we put a fracking ban inside a grocery store plastic bag and label it “jail administrator” and maybe sneak them both through? Those Lege types aren’t the brightest, I hear.

  2. Steve Houston says:

    Hickman doesn’t want the responsibilities of running the jail, admitting they are outside his expertise. Fair enough, had he risen through the ranks in HCSO, he would have had to learn from the ground up some of that needed expertise, same as Garcia coming from outside. At least Garcia was smart enough to hire an expert, using the “flexible budgeting skills” he learned from his time on city council, and despite some making a mountain out of a molehill over some inmates committing suicide (which was nothing new) and the deal with the mentally ill inmate (again, nothing new), that hired gun expert offered a great many reforms that paid for his fee many times over. If Garcia had an “R” next to his name, many of those fussing would have remained just as silent as they did for previous sheriff scandals.

    But Hickman also seems under the impression that by dumping the jail on “someone else”, he would retain his same budget and staffing. “Hickman indicated he wanted to put the maximum resources possible into street patrol and crime prevention.” Reading between the lines, that suggests wholesale tax increases as the jail is a costly endeavor. Commissioner’s Court has yet to allow a sheriff to hire as many deputies as needed based on their own manpower surveys (unlike the city, they do them in house), preferring to save all that money to hand over to contractors that kick back, err, “donate” to appropriate causes like building commissioner’s new homes below cost or enriching campaign fund war chests (just a few examples).

    But sheriff’s do indeed appoint employees to tend to the day to day affairs of the jail, each command staff appointment still accountable to him and the sheriff still responsible for what happens (as with Garcia). That Hickman’s appointee responsible for jail operations reportedly had no expertise in the area was one of his first mistakes.

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