May 09, 2008
The Chron on jail overcrowding

The Chron hits all the right notes on the Harris County jail overcrowding problem.

Holding 10,245 inmates as of midnight Tuesday, the Harris County Jail is so crowded that Sheriff Tommy Thomas has already sent 600 inmates to a lockup in Louisiana and will be sending 1,130 more to facilities in that state.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards recently found the Harris County Jail in compliance with all applicable standards. However, the jail is certified to hold only 9,400 inmates, almost 2,000 fewer than have been recently crowded into its four facilities.

The overcrowding endangers inmates' health. Recently 80 inmates contracted chickenpox or shingles, which share a common virus. The prisoners were quarantined for 21 days and denied visitors. The spread of tuberculosis is a constant worry.

For about 17 inmates per year, detention in the Harris County Jail is a death sentence. They die most often from the failure to receive medication and treatment for illness in a timely fashion.

Some die during violent encounters with their jailers, who are frequently understaffed. Others are badly beaten but survive. Most of the deceased were never convicted of the crime with which they had been charged.

A large part of the jail overcrowding problem resides with the elected judges here. They don't make good use of pre-trial release and other jail diversion programs that allow minor, nonviolent offenders to return to their jobs and families while awaiting trial.

Some judges set up defendants to fail, making the terms of their probation so onerous that successful completion is unlikely. A minor infraction can send a probationer back to jail and then to prison to serve a long sentence.

The Legislature is also to blame. Over the years it has made too many minor offenses felonies. Judges are allowed to set high, unattainable bail, dooming many indigent inmates to months or years of jail time before they have a chance to make their case in court.

Voters in November rejected a bond issue to expand the jail by 2,500 beds, rejecting the notion of placing more Harris County residents needlessly and pointlessly behind bars. That leaves the criminal justice system here with the duty to reduce jail overcrowding by decreasing the number of inmates.

The only thing that needs to be added is that just as the voters took corrective action last year by rejecting the jail bond, they have that chance again this year in November, when many of the judges who are a big part of the problem are up for re-election. I hope that when the Chron gets around to doing its endorsements this fall, the editorial board will remember what it said in the spring.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on May 09, 2008 to Crime and Punishment
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