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Another blame target for the jails

This Chron editorial from Sunday somewhat gently points a finger at the Harris County Commissioners’ Court for the jail overcrowding debacle.

Recently, Harris County Commissioners Court approved $22 million for 160 guard positions and a 15 percent starting pay increase. It would cost $1 million per month to transport hundreds of county inmates and house them in jails around the region.

The county’s jail crowding problems have festered for years. But commissioners waited until they were running headlong into a crisis to provide the resources to correct them. Their poor planning has forced the sheriff into a race against the clock to hire dozens of new personnel and get them trained. That’s a sorry model for recruiting employees in any business; it’s especially negligent for a workplace as dangerous as a large jail.

Throwing money at jail crowding is not the best way to resolve the issue. A more holistic solution will require that all parts of Harris County’s judicial system work together to determine whether so many inmates should be remanded to the county jail in the first place. Sheriff Thomas contends Harris County judges and the district attorney’s office should stop letting nonviolent offenders negotiate plea bargains that permit them to serve their time in his jail rather than in state facilities.

Thomas says that’s the case for almost 2,000 of the approximately 9,100 inmates packed into county facilities. As long as the plea bargains are made, the county must spend the money to house the inmates.

Inmate advocates and defense attorneys charge that the county’s criminal judges pile so many conditions on probation that only offenders with excellent family and community support can avoid revocation and subsequent return to jail. Many inmates languish in jail because they cannot afford bond.

The county is doing a better job diverting substance abusers into treatment programs, but there are still too few such spots for women. And there are still too many sufferers of mental illness in the criminal justice system because Texas has failed to provide adequate mental health care.

It would be nice to know if they actually agree with the “inmate advocates and defense attorneys” instead of merely presenting their argument, but at least they did present it.

Commissioners’ Court is certainly not blameless. After the Chron’s original reporting on this topic last July, there was a followup story with county budget guru Dick Raycraft, in which he said that after receiving a report in 2003 that warned of a spike in county jail inmates, Commissioners were supposed to reconvene a special committee on criminal justice to study responses. That hadn’t happened by July of 2005, and as I said before, I can’t understand why it’s just now that the Court has approved more money for hiring additional jailers. What in the world took them so long?

I still think the buck stops with Sheriff Tommy Thomas, and Grits cites the local judiciary. Clearly, though, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

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  1. All three are to blame, and the District Attorney besides. This is a crisis that never needed to happen – a failure of leadership at literally every possible level.

  2. Charles Hixon says:

    I don’t think you can blame the local judiciary: the guard-to-inmate ratio should not be a consideration to the jurist – just the merits of the case.

    Any judge will tell you that his job is to interpret the law. If there is an issue with the penalties a judge has been given to work with, then the legislature needs to iron those out. So let’s blame the legislature too: they’re the ones who make the laws. Maybe a little blame for the citizens who vote and don’t vote for the law-makers.