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jail bonds

The overcrowded jails of Montgomery County

Sometimes it’s hard to be a County Commissioner.

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Montgomery County officials are facing a dilemma partly of their own making: What to do with an ever-growing jail population after selling off another lockup.

The county’s jailers are struggling to find space for inmates — with dozens on occasion being forced to sleep on the floor or be shipped to a jail outside the county. The 1,200-bed jail is one of only five statewide — and the only one in the Houston region — rated “at risk” for overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Next door to the county jail, separated only by a cyclone fence topped with razor wire, sits the Joe Corley Detention Center, built by the county in 2008 for $45 million. While the 1,500-bed facility was planned to someday handle jail overflow, the inmate population didn’t rise quickly enough, prompting the county to sell it to a private company in May 2013, said Commissioner Craig Doyal, who is poised to become county judge in January after a Republican primary win.

Commissioners said they felt pressured into the sale because of an Internal Revenue Service deadline that could have cost the county the tax-exempt status on the bonds used to build the center.

Commissioners had pledged during the bond election that local inmates would fill 30 percent of the center within five years — but not a single inmate had ever been placed there. They had instead been allowing the U.S. government to pay to house federal prisoners there.

Florida-based Geo Group Inc. bought the center to house undocumented immigrants, leaving commissioners on Monday with little choice but to begin reviewing new proposals, costing in the $200 million range, to expand the jail.

Doyal points out that the county earned a $20-million profit from selling the center to Geo for $65 million. At the same time, Geo pays the county an additional $250,000 per year in taxes for the center and $500,000 for managing its federal prisoner contracts.

In addition, the proposed jail expansion, if completed, would be four times larger than the detention center.

Yeah, $20 million plus $250K per year is still a long way away from $200 million. I know I was a math major and all, but I don’t think you need any particular expertise to realize that. And if the last new facility never needed to be used, why would you need a new one that’s four times bigger than the one you have now? And another thing…you know, I’m just going to hand the mike to Grits.

The main difference between this situation and a circus is that clowns in the circus are professionals. The commissioners court’s ill-considered launch and inept (and possibly corrupt) handling of the whole private jail mess has been a comedy of errors and misjudgements that would be funnier if local taxpayers weren’t footing the bill. I’d be rather surprised if voters approve a nine-figure jail bond so they can go through the whole jail-building brouhaha again. (Wanna bet commissioners try to issue the debt without voter approval?)

Grits fails to understand after all these years why, whenever public officials suggest new jail construction in response to “overcrowding,” reporters don’t immediately begin to question the causes and solicit solutions for excessive pretrial detention. More to the point, why didn’t the consultants hired by the county suggest those options? Like other jails in the state with an overcrowding problem, most Montgomery jail inmates have not been convicted of a crime (and will receive probation even if convicted). Instead, just more than two thirds of them, according to a 7/1 TCJS report, are in jail awaiting trial, still technically presumed innocent. Most simply cannot afford bail. Statewide, about 58 percent of defendants in county jails are awaiting trial; half is not at all an unreasonable goal.

Whether the old jail needs renovation I cannot say. But to the extent the issue is building more capacity, it’s likely Montgomery County officials – particularly local judges – could resolve that  without new jail construction just by expanded use of personal bonds for lower risk defendants who can’t make bail. They should try that before asking taxpayers/voters to trust them with another jail building scheme.

Yeah, what he said. To be as fair as I can be to the Montgomery County Commissioners Court, they do represent a fast-growing county, so it’s not completely unreasonable that their current jail needs are growing as well. That doesn’t detract from Grits’ point, of course. There are dumb ways to handle that kind of growth, and there are smart ways to handle it. You can see which way they’re leaning up there. Hair Balls has more.

Election results: Harris County

The big story: RIP, Astrodome.

We still have the memories

A $217 million bond measure to fund a massive Astrodome renovation failed by several percentage points, a decision expected to doom it to the wrecking ball.

Proposition 2 would have allowed Harris County to issue up to $217 million in bonds to turn the beloved but bedraggled stadium into a massive event and exhibition center.

County commissioners have said they would recommend the wrecking ball if the bond failed.

“We’re going to have to do something quick,” County Judge Ed Emmett said afterward. “We can’t allow the once-proud dome to sit like a rusting ship in the middle of a parking lot.”

He called it “an interesting evening to say the least” and added, “We have an electorate that is for whatever reason anti-bond.”

The news came as a blow to representatives of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

“There’s no disputing this building is an icon,” said the Trust’s Beth Wiedower. “Its legacy will live on even if it doesn’t. It seems like it’s fate is sealed obviously we are disappointed in the outcome.”

I voted for the Dome, and I’m sad to see it end this way. I saw a lot of mourning about this on Facebook and Twitter last night. I wonder how many of those folks were Harris County residents, and how many of them voted. I will be very interested to see what the precinct data says about this one.

Thankfully, the joint inmate processing center passed, though by a very close margin. My theory on the Astrodome was that in the end, this effort came too late. I think too many people had become cynical about the whole thing, and perhaps the somewhat staid New Dome proposal, chosen over a number of imaginative but fanciful alternatives, turned people off. I’m just guessing here. The pro-Dome campaign wasn’t particularly high-visibility, either, and that probably didn’t help. Like it or not, the people have spoken.

The Pasadena power-grab redistricting plan was passed in a squeaker as well, 3290 to 3203, with the No vote carrying Election Day, just not quite by enough. There were three other Pasadena proposals on the ballot, and they all passed with 64% or more of the vote. Expect the lawsuit against this to be filed any day.

Finally, in a race I paid only passing attention to, voters in Katy ISD rejected a $69 million bond proposal that included a massive new stadium by a solid 55-45 margin. I had no opinion on that one, but as an AP wire story I spotted on the Chron website said, it was a bad day for stadiums yesterday.

The city and county would like to cooperate, but…

…it’s hard to do when there’s no money to do it with.

City and county officials have not met for months to discuss a joint booking facility, long touted as a way to save taxpayers money. It would get the city out of the jail business and filter frequent fliers out of the incarceration pipeline by putting social service representatives at the entrance and exit doors to the county jail.

At a meeting last month at which Commissioners Court approved a plan to transform the county crime lab into a regional one, county officials spoke of their frustration that the city still has not agreed on terms for participation, despite the Houston Police Department’s well-publicized and costly troubles with its own crime lab.

[…]

A booking center is on the city’s funded building projects list but not on the county’s. Harris County voters rejected a $195 million bond measure for a jail and booking center in 2007, on the same ballot that they signed off on five other major public projects costing tens of millions of dollars each. The city would have contributed $32 million to that plan. The offer still stands, said Andy Icken, the city’s chief development officer.

“If the county came to me tomorrow and said, ‘We’re ready to go for a bond issue and work on the processing center,’ we’re prepared to work with them,” Icken said.

On the crime lab, the tables are turned. County voters approved $80 million for a crime lab on the same ballot in which they rejected the jail and booking center. In this case, it is the city that does not have the money.

The recession also forced both governments into months of budget crisis management and has made long-term planning difficult.

“It’s really not that there’s disagreement. It’s that these things have not made it to the front burner in light of other issues that are going on,” [County Judge Ed] Emmett said.

I don’t even know what to say about this. I’m sure that most people, when they think about governments “tightening its belt” to “live within its means” during bad times, they imagine “fat” being cut out of the budget, because of course every budget has “fat” (which is clearly labeled as such) in it. Long term stuff like this doesn’t cross their minds, but the truth is that “saving” a few dollars now by foregoing or postponing needed investments winds up costing a bunch more in the long term. We do this all the time, because these are the easiest expenses to cut back on, but every time we do we’re just passing the cost on down the line.

The financial squeeze also plays out against the backdrop of a traditional divide between city and county.

The county and city, by state law, have differing missions, offer disparate services and have varying authority to fund and achieve those. The governance is equally different, with the city ruled by a strong mayor and 14-member council, and the county run by a five-member commissioners court in which four members have considerable control over their individual precincts.

On a larger and more philosophical level, the way we do local government really doesn’t make much sense, either. Many of the needs we have are regional, spanning multiple jurisdictions, which makes finding and funding solutions for them a lot harder than it needs to be. Issues of transportation, air quality, crime, and so on don’t stop at arbitrary geographical borders, but the ability to deal with them often does, which is what leads to things like the city of Houston threatening to sue manufacturing plants elsewhere in Harris County, and the state Legislature stepping in with a bill to prevent them from doing so. If we had to do it all again from scratch, a regional government that grew and adapted with a growing population as it spreads out all over the place would have a lot of appeal. But that ain’t going to happen any time soon.

New “booking center” proposed

As we know, Sheriff Garcia has been trying to rework the jail bond referendum that failed in 2007 into something that can be passed. On Tuesday, Commissioners Court will have a look at the new proposal, which calls for a 1200-inmate “booking center” that’s being touted as a gateway into and out of the jail system, aimed primarily at arrestees with mental health issues.

“It’s much more than a booking facility,” said Steven Schnee, executive director of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. The current booking center is so crowded that there is space for neither specialists nor places to send the incoming other than cells.

What the new center would offer is a “Door B,” Schnee said. He does not know what exactly will be behind the door, but he envisions a place where various agencies that serve the mentally ill can set up a one-stop area that avoids the complications of shuffling a patient from one organization to another — or finding a particular inmate among the 9,400 distributed in three downtown buildings.

[…]

“If all of the money is being pulled toward the jail, there may not be the funds to focus on the alternatives,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

The costs of running a new building – utilities, staffing, maintenance – will compete for tight budget dollars with reforms that would divert more mentally ill arrestees into treatment instead of cells, said Levin and Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

“When economies get really difficult,” Yanez-Correa said, “the first things that are cut are treatment programs.” Such a scenario removes programs that could save taxpayer money in avoided jail costs while retaining the debt, interest and operational costs of a new facility.

The devil is in the details here. The goal is to reduce the inmate population, which in turn will reduce the amount that Harris County spends on locking people up. I do not and will not support anything that expands our capacity to warehouse inmates. If this new facility is geared towards moving people who will be better served by treatment out of the jails and into mental health programs, then I will most likely be in favor of it. I will need to know what specifically this is for, and how it will be funded. Yanez-Correa’s concerns are well-taken, especially since that’s what’s happening right now at the state level. If we’ll be depending on the state to provide the money for mental health and other treatment services, what will happen if and when that money gets cut? I’m willing to hear what the Sheriff has to say, but these are the things I’ll need to see answers for.

A county budget threefer

Three items of interest in the news that relate to the Harris County budget.

Contemplating cremation

Commissioners Court this morning discussed possibly changing to a cremate-first policy at Harris County’s public cemetery.

A report from the cemetery director projects that the county’s 18.7-acre cemetery will be full some time next year, necessitating the purchase of a 25-acre plot for $7 million.

Switching to cremation instead of burial would save the county about $60,000 a year in operations. It would also give the county five to seven years before it would have to purchase more land for another cemetery, county budget officer Dick Raycraft told the Court.

Makes sense to me. I might argue that this should be the default going forward, not just till more land can be acquired. What do you think?

The business of bail bonds. Beyond the likely uncollectable money that the county is owed, and the pathetic resources the county has to try anyway, the meat of the story is this:

Under tough policies adopted more than a decade ago, Harris County’s judges created a huge boom in the local bonding business by denying nearly all accused criminals’ requests for so-called personal bonds — even for many people accused of low-level crimes like drug possessions or misdemeanors, records show. Meanwhile, district judges also raised bond rates for low-level repeat drug offenders and for anyone suspected of living illegally in the United States.

Those judicial decisions forced more people to pay bail bondsmen nonrefundable fees of at least 10 percent to win release or simply stay in jail, where the number of pretrial prisoners has mushroomed, argues Gerald Wheeler, a Ph.D. researcher and retired Harris County pretrial services director who has studied the system.

Wheeler describes the county’s oversight of bonding as “inefficient and convoluted” and advocates a broad-based review and reform of the entire system.

The policy of denying personal bonds was advocated by Republican judicial candidates in the 1994 and 1996 elections, and implemented by them after they won. As Grits says, it’s time to go back to how it was before. Which brings us to the last story:

Harris County may look to reserves for Sheriff’s Office. As we know, the county hopes to save some money by spending less on the Sheriff’s department. This doesn’t represent a change in that thinking, it’s more a desire to be realistic about what the costs actually are and be up front about it. But it does connect very clearly to the previous story:

A growing jail population has fueled a 66 percent increase in sheriff’s spending during the past four years.

The sheriff has spent about $34 million this year alone on overtime, much of it to cover shifts at its understaffed jail. A consultant’s study in December concluded that the county has 342 fewer jailers than it needs.

“It begs the question as to whether or not the number of employees he has is enough,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “If it’s not, then let’s hire the people with the same money we’re spending on overtime.”

[County Judge Ed] Emmett, too, suggested that hiring more deputies could actually save the Sheriff’s Office money.

It probably would. So would going back to personal bonds so that fewer people who don’t need to be in jail wind up there anyway. Has anyone heard anything from our jail czar lately?

Quan officially files

I had lunch today at the Post Oak Grill on Milam so I could be there for Gordon Quan’s official announcement that he is running for Harris County Judge. In fact, as Martha noted, he submitted his paperwork and paid his filing fee to be on the Democratic primary ballot. (Quan will have an opponent in March, Ahmad Hassan, who lost the 2008 primary to David Mincberg.) Here’s a copy of the press release about the event, and here’s a draft copy of the speech Quan gave at the event. I want to highlight this bit, which was right at the beginning:

I want to bring new ideas to the County Government and look to address the root causes of the problems to develop solutions and not just put a bandage on the problem.

Our jail is under court supervision and is overcrowded. While voters had previously defeated a bond election for a new jail, I believe they spoke out against the manner criminal justice was administered in Harris County.

I want to work to hand-in-hand with the commissioners, Sheriff Garcia, District Attorney Lykos, the local municipalities and the courts and elected officials like Senator Ellis to set criteria for fines versus confinement for minor offenses, a centralized jail system for more rapid bonding, the development of a public defender system and a regional D.N.A. lab to avoid wrongful confinement.

On top of these issues, I want to look at methods to remove from the criminal justice system people who are homeless and suffering from mental health issues. A proactive approach of investing in affordable housing with supportive services would remove “frequent flyers” from our jails and emergency rooms where they run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in cost for tax payers.

As you might imagine, this is something I’m very glad to hear. This isn’t just a matter of justice, it’s also a matter of fiscal responsibility. We’re paying millions of dollars to lock up people who don’t need to be locked up, which was always a bad idea but is now an urgent priority given the county’s financial situation. I’m really looking forward to seeing Quan push this issue.

An unexpected treat from this event was seeing local sports legend Barry Warner act as emcee and introduce Quan. I had no idea that Warner was so active in the Asian-American community, but he is, and he’s a longtime friend of Quan’s. I shook Warner’s hand after the event, which was nearly as cool as getting my picture taken with Lisa Malosky at Rep. Ellen Cohen’s campaign kickoff event nearly four years ago.

Anyway. Quan will have a tough race against incumbent Judge Ed Emmett, who is generally well regarded and has his performance during Hurricane Ike as Exhibit A for his re-election. I don’t know what kind of fundraising chops Quan has, but he will need to pile up some dough to get his name and message out there. From what I saw of him at this event, I thought his message was a strong one, his challenge will be to convince enough people to change horses. I think he’s about as good a candidate as the Democratic Party could have hoped for this year, and the crowd at this event was certainly fired up about him. We’ll see how it goes.

More back and forth on the latest jail proposal

Grits argues that the latest proposal to build a new processing center for the jail would result in a tax increase because of the need to hire more staff, which is not accounted for in the bonds. The Chron wonders what all the fuss is about. I’m still looking forward to seeing progress made in reducing the overall inmate population. I believe a lot of these issues will be settled, or at least a lot less contentious, when that happens. I hope they will, anyway, because Commissioners Court has agreed to move forward with the plan.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is proposing a central processing center, where everyone arrested by his deputies and Houston Police Department officers would be booked. It would hold 2,193 prisoners: 1,000 in booking areas and about 1,200 in cells designated for specialized populations, such as the mentally ill, medical cases and women.

The proposal does not estimate how much it would cost to staff a new facility.

The Commissioners Court granted approval of the study, which revives city-county talks that go back more than a decade.

Figuring in the staffing cost, which Grits has been harping on, is a must. Surely the overall cost to the county will be lower if the jail population is reduced, right? The more we move in that direction, the better off we’ll be.

UPDATE: Stace raises a different objection to the proposal.

Sheriff to try again for new jail facility

Sheriff Adrian Garcia wants to take another crack at building a new jail facility. As was the case in 2007, when a referendum to float bonds for a new jail was voted down, this too would be voted on by the public. Garcia recognizes he has work to do to make it happen.

On Tuesday, Commissioners Court is scheduled to consider County Budget Officer Dick Raycraft’s recommendation that his office, the sheriff’s department and the Public Infrastructure Department tackle the jail problem. The result, Raycraft said, could be a recommendation to the court in June to put a jail bond measure on the November 2010 ballot.

[…]

Garcia pledged to be an active participant in the campaign by educating voters on the need for new facilities. In addition, he said, a new bond measure likely would come with the approval of the county’s new Criminal Justice Coordinating Council. The council was formed earlier this year to bring together elected officials to find ways to alleviate jail overcrowding.

Garcia’s plan would establish a new booking center that could hold 2,193 prisoners. It would have about 1,200 beds and capacity to hold another 1,000 people for the processing involved in being booked into or released from jail.

Garcia said the current facility is stretched far beyond capacity.

“I’m concerned about the safety of my employees, as well as the safety of the people we’re processing,” he said.

My position on this has not changed. Rather than repeat myself, I’m going to reprint an email sent by Alan Bernstein, Sheriff Garcia’s Director of Public Affairs, to Carl Whitmarsh in response to a previous email that criticized the Sheriff for pursuing a new jail:

When it comes to the county’s long-range planning for its entire criminal justice system, this is not the time for critics to shoot first and ask questions later..

First of all, the discussion of the potential construction of a new Central Processing Center is being promulgated by County Budget Director Dick Raycraft, and Sheriff Garcia is glad the subject is being broached.

Second, what my friend David Jones refers to as a jail is a facility primarily intended to take in and release jail inmates for the city of Houston and the county. (Note the title of the facility). Taking over the city’s booking operation, and having the city reimburse the county for doing so, would eliminate duplicative efforts and spending for both governments. Yes, this facility would also include functions that most think of as jail housing functions, such as better facilities for mentally ill inmates and a separate housing area for many female inmates. But, as supporting documents show, the Central Processing Center will not, and is not intended to, solve the county’s jail population problem by adding new beds. Raycraft’s proposal actually states that the construction proposal would have to be interwoven with the efforts of the new Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to reduce jail population through policy changes at the prosecutorial and judicial level as well as elsewhere.

In other words, the sheriff hopes that the number of inmates sent to him will decrease, but we still need a new processing center.

Third, one of the problems with the bond referendum for such a facility in 2007 is crystal clear in David’s e-mail. It was widely understood to merely be another jail space. This was unfortunate, because the facility primarily is meant for something else, as explained above.

Fourth, the current inmate processing center at the county jail is woefully outmoded, including being cramped with incoming inmates. The sheriff has explained that this creates a potential safety problem for inmates and staff. These are conditions that David and others, I trust, would never condone.

So there you have it. Clearly, as noted in the story, there needs to be a much better effort to communicate what this facility is for. Showing real progress in reducing the inmate population through better bail and probation policies would go a long way as well. Note further that we are apparently headed in the direction of eliminating the city’s jail facility, which is in line with stated objectives of each of the remaining Mayoral candidates. That too will bear watching over the next year as the county readies this proposal for a vote.

UPDATE: Grits pushes back, and spells out what should be done to reduce the inmate population.

UPDATE: Alan Bernstein works a little overtime by leaving the following comment on that Grits post:

So much misinformation!

The new Central Processing Center would not add 2,500 beds. It would add about half that, and reserve most of those for special facilities for females and mentally ill inmates. Its prime function would be booking and releasing for the county and for the city, which would pay the county to take over those functions. Inmates would be sent to existing beds faster, and would be released faster when their jail stay is over. A new front door is not a new bedroom, si?

The current processing center is overrun, cramped, outmoded – presenting an unsafe situation that no one wants. The new facility would never “build our way out” of a jail population problem. The sheriff, the county budget director and others involved acknowledge that by 2014, when this new facility would open, there will have to be new policies in place across the entire justice system to avert a continuing inmate population then. Fortunately, all of those things are already under discussion.

The sheriff is moving forward on multiple fronts. George Parnham, chairman of the sheriff’s mental health advisory committee, last month briefed Commissioners Court about plans for a Reintegration Center for the mentally ill, as an example. But we have to plan now to avoid a continuation of the problems we already have with an outmoded, too-small inmate processing center.

The sheriff has not rejected “cite-and-release” but wants to make sure it would make things better, not backfire, before seriously considering it.

The jail has no “immigrant detainees” other than those who would be there as non-immigrants dealing with criminal charges under state law. The county jail does not house inmates solely because they are facing immigration charges.

The public defender’s office, new bonding policies and other ideas, all of which are beyond the sheriff’s authority, are also being considered already.

What has changed since the “jail” (wrong title, to be fair) bond was rejected in 2007 besides there now being a new sheriff? For one, there is now a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council of 11 elected officials who are hashing out the ideas presented on this blog. Many of these officials are restless and eager to move forward.

UPDATE: And here’s Grits’ response to Bernstein’s comment.

Harris County tackles jail overcrowding

Well, what do you know?

Harris County’s burgeoning jail population is expected to swell to 12,600 this spring, prompting newly elected officials to take a fresh look at ways to alleviate overcrowding, including releasing low-risk offenders.

The new sheriff, district attorney and eight new criminal district court judges will consider ideas championed for years by local lawmakers, defense lawyers and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.

The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail.

[…]

The county’s criminal district judges voted earlier this month to devote one court to felony cases involving defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and counseling.

Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for reducing the inmate population.

“That’s the ultimate answer — to get some of these people out of the jail and into other locales or in the free world where they’re under monitored supervision or enhanced bonding,” Smith said.

It’s a beautiful thing to see every involved agency working on this in a positive way, rather than just demanding more money to deal with their actions. Elections really do have consequences.

In November 2007, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail downtown. Commissioners Court considered putting a new, smaller request on last November’s ballot, but decided against it.

Smith said it would be naive to think the county will never need a new jail, given its booming population.

“But I also don’t think we can build our way out of the overcrowding issue,” he added.

We’ve pretty clearly demonstrated that. I’m just glad to see that we’ve now finally recognized it. I look forward to seeing what can and will be done about it. Grits has more.