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.
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.