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The definition of insanity, Harris County style

Harris County Commissioners Court will be considering a number of thins for its Capital Improvement Projects budget soon, including a proposal to build a smaller jail in place of the bigger one that voters rejected last year. In doing so, the powers that be demonstrate that they still don’t get it.

As they weigh each jail option, court members will need to decide how they want to control the growth in the inmate population and house the prisoners already in the system, county Budget Officer Dick Raycraft said Friday. Building space for more beds may be one priority, but working with judges and prosecutors to divert defendants from going to jail could be another, he said.

“There’s different ways to look at this,” he said.

The new downtown jail would serve almost exclusively as a central processing facility for Houston and Harris County under the revised plan. While that change drops the project’s cost to $144 million, it also means there will be room for about 1,500 fewer inmates than originally planned. That is almost as many prisoners as the county currently plans to send to Louisiana.

Three hundred beds would be available for inmates with medical and mental health needs, about 500 fewer than planned. Another 672 beds would be assigned to inmates expected to be released within 72 hours, with 200 reserved for the city’s short-term prisoners. A holding area also would be available for people jailed for just a few hours.

As with the previous plan, the city of Houston would be expected to contribute at least $32 million, Raycraft said. The county may seek additional money to cover the increase in building costs since the plan first was developed.

The county likely would finance its share by borrowing funds on a short-term basis and refinancing later, Raycraft said. However, county officials could take another stab at seeking voter approval to issue bonds.

It would cost another $43 million to build the 1,150-bed Atascosita jail and an accompanying sewage-treatment plant.

Sheriff’s Office spokesman Deputy David Crain said the office will have to continue sending inmates to Louisiana until something is done to address the jail’s population problems.

“Unless we’re going to see a dramatic decrease in the jail population, we’re going to have to have space,” Crain said. “Exactly how that space is going to become available is going to be up to the governing fathers.”

How many times do we have to say it? Harris County’s jail overcrowding problems are the result of needlessly locking too many people up for things like drug possession, bail mismanagement, and overly burdensome probation requirements. We can solve this problem now and going forward by better utilization of our scarce resources, or at least not acting as though we can always build more jails to lock up however many people we feel like locking up. This is a problem of our own making, and if we do right at the ballot box this November, it’s a problem we can solve as well. What’s so hard about this?

For what it’s worth, I can see the value in a separate facility to house ill inmates. But until county government, and the judges sitting on the bench, get a grip on the reason why our jails are overcrowded, I can’t and won’t support building any more jails. I will not enable those who are the cause of the problem.

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