January 26, 2009
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.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 26, 2009 to Crime and Punishment

Jail Population Report (PDF)

According to the state report I linked, 6,316 of the 9,793 inmates listed in the report are in the Harris County jail with "pre-trial" status.

5,101 felony
493 misdemeanor
722 state jail felony

Posted by: Trafficnerd on January 26, 2009 6:35 PM
Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)