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How to uncrowd the jails

Defense attorney Rob Fickman makes the case for dealing with Harris County’s jail overcrowding problems.

Jail overcrowding creates unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Locking up the wrong people does not leave sufficient room to lock up the right people, those who are truly dangerous. It also exposes the county and the taxpayers to expensive lawsuits. The jail overcrowding has gone on far too long in this county.

Finally, however, there is some good news. The county has wisely taken the step of appointing former state District Judge Caprice Cosper to be jail czar. She will have a tough job. People don’t just happen to be in jail. Someone puts them there. Those responsible for overflowing our jails to the point where we have to export humans will need to change. Behaviors long entrenched will have to be modified.

Those responsible for putting people in jail must recognize that the jail is not theirs’ alone. Jail space is a county resource paid for by the citizens. The overcrowding is a direct result of people spending that resource without any accountability, often for all the wrong reasons.

There are three groups of people directly responsible for overcrowding our jails. If they are made to be accountable for spending our resource, for wasting jail space, then they will change their behavior and our overcrowding problem will be solved.

Our 37 criminal court judges, the district attorney’s office and the defense bar are all accountable for the jail overcrowding. We all play a hand in the problem. We must all play a hand in formulating and implementing the solutions.

He then lays out a plan for how to do this, which pretty much boils down to “Stop being needlessly and wastefully harsh about setting bonds”. The role he envisions for the District Attorney and the defense bar is basically to stop being complicit in the outlandish bonds that the judges set. Guess he sees one of these groups as being perhaps a tad bit more responsible for the problem than the others. I presume convincing her former colleagues to be more reasonable will be Jail Czar Caprice Cosper’s main task if she wants to achieve a good result. Which makes me wonder what her bond-setting practices were like when she was on the bench. Anyone with insight into that want to comment on it?

On a tangential note, read about the three person commission that was appointed by the local judiciary to review requests to retest DNA evidence filed by defendants. This bit from the Q&A, answered by “veteran appellate defense attorney Bob Wicoff” was interesting:

Q: Are there good reasons to operate a regional crime lab?

A (Wicoff): One good reason, and we’ve seen this on the serology project, is when you have a lab as a part of a law enforcement agency, it becomes rather incestuous. And we have found instances in the serology review of lab technicians actually changing the result to fit what we can only surmise has been told to them as to what the right result should be. We got a confession here, this guy is good for the crime, now we need objective scientific testing. A regional lab would, presumably, solve that.

I think having such a lab be independent of law enforcement is more likely to produce that kind of outcome than having it be regional, but I suspect Wicoff was assuming that a regional lab would necessarily be independently run. My point is simply that there’s no reason you couldn’t have such a lab that only serviced Houston or Harris County; the reason to make it regional is to get more bang for the buck. Houston or Harris by itself might not be able or willing to pay for this, but if you added in all the H-GAC counties, for instance, that might do it.

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  1. Steve latimer says:

    You left out the police in your assessment of those responsible for jail overcrowding and lets face it the police are the ones that actually arrest people. You don’t get a hearing before you are placed in jail so if you really want to have an impact you need to go directly to the source. They sometimes arrest people for charges that should not have occurred and let their ego make the decision for them. Although I have never had the displeasure of being detained in your jail, I have been elsewhere and on at least two occasions it was for unsubstantiated charges that were dropped by the judge. However I have the ability to make bail, but many people don’t and they end up housed at your jail until they get a court date. So if you want to rectify the situation you should implement a program that discourages arresting people without probable cause and when a cop brings a no merit case before a judge they should at least be verbally reprimanded for doing so and if a pattern exist then they should be retrained on proper procedure.

  2. […] budget are based on the expectation that the jail population will decrease due to the efforts of the jail czar, then it’s the right idea. In addition, the Sheriff will see some savings […]