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Trying to spend less on the jails

As we know, Harris County has a budget shortfall, and in recent years has seen spending on the Sheriff’s department, driven largely be the costs of the overcrowded jails, exceed its budgeted amount by millions. For the upcoming fiscal year, Sheriff Adrian Garcia is going to try to reduce these costs.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has presented a plan to cut his department’s spending by $47 million in the upcoming year by nearly eliminating overtime, slashing insurance costs and ending the practice of paying other counties and another state to take hundreds of inmates off his hands.

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Garcia $376 million proposal attempts to reverse years of runaway growth in spending on deputies and jails. Garcia just completed a rookie year in which he is projected to blow through his budget by $51 million, busting the sheriff’s budget for the sixth time in seven years. A budget that was $254 million four years ago is projected to hit $423 million in the fiscal year that closes next month.

The sheriff’s plan depends on reining in the swelling jail population that has bedeviled past attempts to contain law enforcement spending. In the past six years, the number of inmates in Harris County jails has risen from 7,600 to 10,300.

The county formed the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council last summer to bring together prosecutors, mental health professionals and law enforcement officers to look at ways to divert the flow of offenders from county lockups. The council’s work could start or increase initiatives to have some offenders serve time at home with ankle monitors, divert the mentally ill into treatment instead of cells and offer treatment instead of jail time for first-time DWIs and other offenders.

Whether or not this plan works will depend to a large degree on people outside the Sheriff’s department, namely the District Attorney and the various criminal court judges. I’d hate to be in a position where my success hinges that much on what people I can’t directly influence will do, but that’s the job Garcia signed up for. And it must be noted that some of this is within his power – as Grits likes to note, the Sheriff could use authority granted by the Lege in 2007 to give citations instead of making arrests for certain low-level, non-violent misdemeanors. I haven’t seen much news lately about what the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is up to these days, so I can’t really judge the likelihood of Garcia’s proposals to sink or swim. Clearly, though, the rubber will need to meet the road this year. The money isn’t there otherwise.

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