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.