Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman is asking the state jail commission to let nearly 200 inmates sleep on plastic cots on the floor of the already overcrowded county jail system, a request challenged by more than a dozen Houston-area lawmakers.
The lawmakers note that county officials have not fully followed the advice of their own criminal justice consultants, who since 2009 have advocated increased use of low-cost personal recognizance bonds as well as jail diversion programs for low-level drug offenders and the mentally ill to reduce jail population.
Today, the average daily population exceeds 9,400 inmates and nearly 80 percent are awaiting trial, county records show.
Hickman and Harris County Judge Ed Emmett are asking the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to extend their existing variance of 580 bunk beds and add another 192 plastic cot-like bunks known as “low riders.” Also called “boats,” the plastic cots would be used by inmates in both the 1200 Baker St. and 701 San Jacinto jail buildings in downtown Houston, the county’s application states.
Hickman’s request is on the agenda for Thursday’s jail commission meeting in Austin, and the sheriff acknowledged that the use of the plastic cots could cause “heightened apprehension” by jail regulators.
The sheriff said “low riders” are necessary due to a jail population that has risen dramatically since January from an average daily population of 8,500 to 9,400 last month, as well as the need to do preventative maintenance in various cellblocks.
“Harris County and the Sheriff’s Office realize variance beds are temporary in duration and not a permanent replacement for sound criminal justice policy or correctional practices,” Hickman stated in an Oct. 6 letter to the jail commission.
Ryan Sullivan, spokesman for the sheriff’s office, stressed late Wednesday: “Sheriff Hickman has been the foremost advocate for reforms of the criminal justice system and bail reform in Harris County. On multiple occasions, the sheriff has testified in the Texas legislature asking the state to bear its burden in criminal justice reform. Likewise, the sheriff has used the full force of his office to advocate for criminal justice and bail reforms locally.”
In the Oct. 6 letter to the commissioner, Hickman stated: “The department is committed to working with all stakeholders to reduce the jail population and lessen our dependence upon variance beds and we will continue to explore all options and opportunities to mitigate their necessity.
Sullivan pointed out “that variances are temporary fixes requiring more permanent solution.”
I’m sorry, but no matter how temporary this may be, the answer should be No. It is and has always been within our power to address this problem by not putting people in jail for the crime of not being able to afford to bond themselves out. For the umpty billionth time, even a small increase in the number of personal recognizance bonds would go a long way towards fixing these ever-recurring problems. I recognize that no Sheriff can make the misdemeanor court judges do this, but we can at least consistently identify the problem for what it is, in the hope of maybe applying a little pressure. Commissioners Court could help with that, too. Regardless, the Legislature should not do anything to enable the problem. The voters will have a chance to apply an electoral fix to this in 2018, but that’s two years off and the track record in off-year elections is not promising. Having the Lege say “fix this yourselves” is our best bet for now.
UPDATE: Grits is thinking the same thing.