An end is in sight for the inefficient process of shuttling prisoners in and out of redundant local lockups after the City Council on Wednesday approved an agreement with Harris County to build a long-discussed inmate processing center.
Public officials have discussed the need for a new booking center since the 1990s, because the current facility in the county jail tends to be over capacity even when the jail population is low and booking processes are inefficient. Roughly half the inmates booked into city jails also face state charges; they end up transferred to the county jail, where they are booked again.
City leaders have been enthusiastic backers of the processing center, knowing a larger booking facility will allow them to realize a longtime goal of shuttering the two aging municipal jails. Most big Texas cities closed their jails long ago, as these facilities typically only hold those arrested for low-level misdemeanors, usually for no more than 48 hours.
“The sooner we can get out of the jail business, the better,” said Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a former police officer who chairs the council’s public safety committee. “This will be a cost savings for us. It’s been a long time coming.”
The city and county committed a combined $9 million to design the center a year ago, and they are approving their shares of the $91 million needed to build the 238,000-square-foot, three-story facility. The building will hold 552 beds, along with offices, interview rooms, DUI processing areas, evidence lockers, lineup rooms, a clinic and courtrooms.
City voters in 2007 approved $32 million in bonds to build what would have been a larger, 2,500-bed processing center, but county voters that year rejected a $195 million bond issue for the same purpose. Presented again with a $70 million bond issue for the current, scaled-back proposal in 2013, county voters said yes.
The city’s ultimate contribution to the facility’s construction, barring any cost overruns, will be $27.3 million. Some of the other 2007 bond dollars were used to open the Houston Recovery Center, which diverts intoxicated prisoners from jail and pairs addicts with social services. That center has reduced the population of city jails and is expected to do the same at the processing center.
The facility, scheduled to break ground next month at the northeast corner of San Jacinto and Baker streets, will connect to the county jail via a tunnel.
Construction of the joint processing center was approved to begin last June, after both Harris County and the city approved finding an architect in 2013. The sobering center was opened earlier in 2013. Once this new facility opens in 2017, the city will spend more than $4 million less per year on handling inmates, and will free up about 100 cops now working at the city jail to do other things. The new facility will also have mental health treatment services, which will hopefully enable more people to get the help they need and keep them out of jail in the future. All in all, a very positive step forward.