Separating the Sheriff and the jail

As Commissioners Court prepares to name a replacement Sheriff, they have some bigger plans to discuss as well.


A revolutionary idea is being pitched that would reshape the law enforcement agency by removing the troubled jail from the sheriff’s responsibilities. One county commissioner is leading the charge to create a new jail administrator who would answer to Commissioners Court rather than the sheriff.

Garcia recently announced his resignation so he could run for mayor of Houston. As would-be sheriffs scrambled to get résumés to Commissioners Court to fill Garcia’s term through 2016, the most vocal proponent of carving up the job over the past week has been Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack believes the sheriff should handle police work and other directors should be held accountable for the jail, its health system and its information technology division. He said the jail’s budget is bloated, mental health cases should be better monitored and the sheriff should focus on patrolling, preventing and investigating crime in unincorporated areas of the county.

This division of power is untested in Texas, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Brandon Wood, who runs the commission, said Bexar County is the only one under the state’s local government code to assign a person to run its jail, but even in that case the sheriff oversees the jail administrator.

There is some precedent elsewhere. County supervisors in Santa Clara, Calif., split the county jail from its sheriff, with voters’ approval, in 1988 in the wake of rampant overspending on the part of the officeholder. A consultant for the reformed jail, Jeffrey Schwartz, said Santa Clara’s department of corrections answered to county supervisors until the arrangement was ultimately rescinded in 2012.

Commissioners have long questioned Garcia’s management of the jail. The most recent scandal stemmed from his firing of six jailers, suspension of 29 others and the demotion of a major in the wake of a grand jury indictment of two jail guards in the case involving a mentally ill inmate housed in a bug-infested cell.

One might get the impression from reading this story that problems at the Harris County jail began with Adrian Garcia. In reality, of course, the jail was a longstanding cesspool of neglect and mismanagement thanks to the ineptitude of Tommy Thomas. Thomas couldn’t have done it without the utter lack of oversight from Commissioners Court that he received. It wasn’t until after the voters finally sent Thomas into retirement that Commissioners Court – in particular, Steve Radack – began to give a crap about how the jail was being managed. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Is this idea even legal?

Robert Soard, first assistant Harris County attorney, said separating the health department at the jail is legal, under a 2011 revision of the state statute, but the current law designates the sheriff as “the keeper of the county jail.” So the legal question that County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office has been researching in advance of the sheriff appointment is whether a jail administrator can answer to Commissioners Court under Texas law. As Wood explained, the sheriff has discretion to appoint someone to run the jail. However, the law says “the sheriff shall continue to exercise supervision and control over the jail.”

Alan Bernstein, legislative liaison for Garcia, said what is being proposed seems untenable: “There’s a state law that controls this issue and until there’s a different law there would be nothing (for us) to respond to,” Bernstein said. “It isn’t Adrian Garcia’s state law. It isn’t state law for Harris County. It’s state law for every sheriff in every one of the 254 counties in Texas.”

Soard said the county attorney’s office will advise Commissioners Court how to attempt this setup only if it is legal.

I’m no fan of our current or previous Attorney General, but isn’t this a question for that office? I know that AG opinions take, like, six months to get written, but wouldn’t we all feel a little better if we knew someone had been researching this for all that time?

And is it even workable?

Radack said his idea is to create more transparency and efficiency. He envisions the court making a verbal agreement with the new sheriff about a separate jail administrator, which could later be formalized. However, the deal would not be binding. “Ultimately, the sheriff has the opportunity to revoke the agreement,” he said.

From an organizational perspective, it makes some sense to split the responsibility for the jail out from the Sheriff’s office, much like many counties have moved responsibility for elections out from the County Clerk’s office. It’s not clear to me how adding in an appointed administrator adds to transparency and efficiency, however. I’d like to hear a lot more about that. If this is a condition of employment for the Sheriff that the Commissioners are about to appoint, well, what does that say about accountability and public involvement? Shouldn’t the public at least have a chance to learn about this idea and come to an opinion about it before the Court moves forward on it? I’m just saying.

And, as Stace worries, if this is a back door to some kind of harebrained jail privatization scheme, well, that’s a huge can of worms to open at a very convenient time. I sure hope that isn’t the ulterior motive here, but it’s not like it should surprise anyone if it is.

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5 Responses to Separating the Sheriff and the jail

  1. Steven Houston says:

    I’m not a lawyer and don’t play one on TV but if Commissioner’s Court wants to change the game by splitting off the jail, a topic it has engaged in most actively since 2008, they should have pushed for a state wide referendum to change the state constitution and then had a local vote. One need not look far to see the miserable failures of jail privatization in Texas and elsewhere, the belief that there are big savings to be had stymied by all the regulations that must be followed regardless of who runs the show. The Harris County jails have needed huge amounts of overtime largely because the self professed “experts” on Commissioner’s Court refuse to allow the sheriff to hire enough people, even implementing a hiring freeze for a period of time under Garcia’s watch.

    Those with short memories or partisans of the GOP, want to pin every ill tied to the jail as being Garcia’s fault, a silly notion given the scandals of the last 40 years or more, the fact that Garcia was allowed to implement various reforms surprising. The suggestion that adding layers of bureaucracy will magically result in more transparency or more accountability is another fantasy, Garcia’s handling of the recent scandal much more effective in the sense that supervisors were held accountable for events they were made privy too, something that has not been the case (for the most part) in the history of the county. He’s fired others that failed to take action, the idea that the policies and procedures were “just for show” slowly changing in the organizational culture.

    The belief that voters pick a sheriff based on his organizational skill, education, and personal knowledge of both running a jail as well as a major policing organization is crazy too; they pick which letter is next to the candidates name and move on to the next race on the ballot for the most part. If you want an expert, take the politics out of it, the majority of the public gleefully happy to not know the details of life in the jail (on either side of the bars). But ultimately, privatization requires a substantial profit to work, the kind of profit that guys like Radack will only allow to happen if he’s going to get his cut.

  2. Big picture: If done with integrity this would be a good idea. If done to gore some specific political ox, it could just be a mess. Devil’s in the details, but on its face it’s a worthy concept.

  3. Bill Daniels says:

    Call me crazy, but I really doubt a lack of management layers is the problem that ails the jail.

    And here’s a thought: If the jail was really that horrific, you’d think people would try harder to NOT find themselves in it. How many are there for not paying traffic tickets, or failing to comply with probation requirements, for example?

    The only folks that get a pass from me in that regard are the mentally ill, who can’t figure out the cause and effect that keeps bringing them to the jail. I’d rather we spend whatever money we are going to spend on more management for the jail on programs to do something about the mentally ill.

  4. Steven Houston says:

    Bill, two thirds of those in the jail are there awaiting trial, many of those held in pretrial detention not a particular threat to the world at large. How many of those overlap the reported 25% of the jail population with a “serious” mental illness, I don’t know off hand but I suspect it has historically been a substantial number. Many take a plea deal since they will get out months sooner than having a trial regardless of guilt, all of this at great expense to the rest of us.

    Grits, based on historical examples and the personalities involved, I wouldn’t expect much integrity or realistically thinking the right thing be done for the right reasons. I admit to being a cynic…

  5. Steven Houston says:

    and in related news, this kick in the nuts courtesy of Commissioner’s Court:

    (HOUSTON, TX) – Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Ron Hickman has been named interim Harris County sheriff by Commissioners Court.

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