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Revisiting the Harris County Jail blame game

Grits follows up on post blaming Harris County Sheriff Tommy Thomas for the Harris County Jail overcrowding woes, and explains the role of the judiciary in this mess.

In 2003, Texas passed HB 2668 requiring judges to sentence defendants to probation and drug treatment instead of incarceration in a so-called “state jail” facility for the lowest level drug possession offense – e.g., less than a sugar packet full of powder. The goal was to shift up to 4,000 non-violent offenders per year out of prison and onto probation, saving tens of millions of dollars and helping avoid the state’s own overcrowding crisis. So far so good.

But in Harris County, which prosecutes about half of all such offenders statewide, judges found a loophole and prosecutors routinely and aggressively push for it. State law allows judges to order county jail time as a condition of felony probation. Usually county jails are used as punishment for misdemeanors and for defendants awaiting trial.

So even though they “probate” drug users’ sentences which diverts them from state prisons, judges instead are sentencing those probationers to the county jail where Harris County taxpayers pick up the tab instead. They don’t have to do that – hardly anybody else does, and that’s what makes the Harris County overincarceration crisis a self-inflicted wound. They’d more than make up the 500 people they’re being told to lease space for if they just stopped sentencing probationers unnecessarily to jail time.

He’s the heavyweight champion in crime and punishment matters, so I’m not going to quibble with any of this. I do agree that there’s blame to go around, and frankly my reading of what he’s written here suggests that DA Chuck Rosenthal needs to share in this as well, since I’d bet that quite a few of these probation-jail sentences arose from plea bargains. I’d certainly like to see some of the Democratic candidates for criminal and district court judgeships make an issue of this in their campaigns, since the bottom line effect is an extra one million dollars a month being socked to Harris County taxpayers.

The reason I singled out Sheriff Thomas, though, is simply that the jails are his concern. It doesn’t matter to me that it was bad sentencing by the judges that helped put the jails in a tight spot. It’s his job to do something about it before it becomes a crisis. If that means speaking to judges about the effect they’re having on his jails, calling press conferences to publicly blast them for it, or something else, then he needs to do it. He may not be the cause of the underlying problem, but that problem was still his to handle. He has failed to do so, and for that reason I say the fallout is his responsibility.

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  1. Agreed, I definitely didn’t mean to let Thomas off the hook. I just hope when the county goes to look for solutions, the only ones on the table aren’t ones that require fat tax increases for interminable and unnecessary jail expansions.

    They need to hire more jailers or pay for overtime in the short term, no question. In addition, though, Harris County judges need to quit these counterproductive sentences for low-level drug offenders. Plus, the county commissioners court needs to invest more in drug courts and treatment services for those probated state jail felons. (California’s Prop 36 generated $2.50 to $4.00 savings in incarceration costs for every $1 spent on treatment.)

    Bottom line: The tools are there to stop this foolishness for a lot less money than leasing 500 beds with some simple pragmatism – problem is, there are a LOT of big egoes involved, of which Thomas is just one culprit, though a fair enough target. Best,

  2. Charles Hixon says:

    OK then, I’ll say it: Mr. Grits for Breakfast seems to be skipping his breakfast.

    Assigning responsibility for overcrowded jails is one issue. Assigning responsibility for penalties for illegal behavior is another issue. Both issues are valid. But credibility suffers on all fronts when we drag in our pet peeve. This is the path to inaction. But then: maybe that’s the intention of Mr. Grits for Breakfast.

  3. Bobby C. says:

    “If that means speaking to judges about the effect they’re having on his jails, calling press conferences to publicly blast them for it, or something else, then he needs to do it.”

    Just wondering, how do you know he hasn’t done this or taken any other measures to deal with the issue. Could it be possible he is working on it but not getting the cooperation he needs. I see so many folks talking about what others have and haven’t done when they really have no idea what they have or have not done. Just curious about where you get your info.