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County finally takes jail overcrowding seriously

We’ll see what this actually becomes.

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Chasing $4 million in grant money, Harris County officials on Thursday announced reforms in the criminal justice system to unclog dockets, lower jail population and address racial and ethnic disparities.

And because the changes are so important, they said, they will do it even if they don’t get the money.

“The pursuit of this grant has broken down the silos that we’ve been working in, independent of each other,” District Attorney Devon Anderson said. “Whether we win this grant or not, we are going to do these things.”

The changes mean two new dockets for violent offenders to get trial faster, more treatment and services for addicts and the mentally ill and diversion programs for mentally ill homeless people and low-level non-violent suspects.

[…]

Late Wednesday night, a little known committee that began meeting monthly under the late County Commissioner El Franco Lee submitted the county’s application for a grant that could mean $2 million a year for two years to put their plans into effect.

In preparing the application, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council gathered data on arrest and release decisions, case processing and diversion and looked into recidivism and re-entry initiatives.

“What we found is that not one group is responsible for who is in the jail,” Anderson said Thursday. “We all are.”

To achieve the biggest of their stated goals, lowering the jail’s daily population which hovers around 8,500 by 1,800 people, officials are implementing several changes, including one often sought: the use of personal recognizance bonds instead of bail.

I was ruminating over how to respond to this, when Grits summed it up as well as I ever could have:

None of the suggestions being contemplated are much different from what every study panel and consultant who’s examined it has told Harris County since the turn of the century. It’s just that judges refused to stop using bond schedules, preferring to use jail to maximize pressure on defendants to enter plea deals, without which they feared their dockets would swell. So if the judges don’t cooperate, none of this works.

The hope is that judges will be able to use a new risk assessment tool as a fig leaf to justify doing something – getting rid of bail schedules – that everybody knows they should have done years ago.

[…]

If judges and the DA embrace these programs, the plan could work. But it won’t be because of a grant. These or similar changes have been staring the county in the face for at least a decade.

Certainly, Grits hopes they do all this; I’m just tired of hearing them promise they’re going to do it, which often seems to happen right about election time whenever voters start asking questions, one notices. So at this point my attitude is, “Show me, don’t tell me.”

Ditto that. The Press has more.

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3 Comments

  1. Steve Houston says:

    I’ve long gone on record for supporting more use of PR bonds and improving how the mentally ill are handled by the state but as long as we vote for judges based on rhetoric and the letter next to their name, I’m not sure how much real change is going to take place or how fast. So it’s all well and good that candidates like Ogg continue to suggest that they will make change happen if elected to office but they are just blowing smoke when they leave out the details. Judges set bails as they see fit and aren’t about to listen to a DA making demands of them on how to do their job any more than local police chiefs and mayors are going to cave in to demands.

    The judges tell us that they use bond schedules because the old risk assessment tools didn’t work very well, no word by anyone on what changes have been made to make them more effective predictors of behavior so I have my doubts they are that much better. And like it or not, there is no big push by the state or Commissioner’s Court to fully fund needed programs for the mentally ill, most of the discussion of late is merely shuffling the problem around to save a few marginal dollars, not to get help to those in need in a substantive manner. Those buying into the myth of reform “because it’s the right thing to do” are the same dreamers that bought into the idea that body cameras were designed to catch police misconduct and stop it, full transparency to be the order of the day. Are we really that naive?

  2. Steve,

    Will you run for city council in 2019?

    Hopefully not a term limited seat like at large 5.
    We want to avoid the cuty council dog-and-pony show

  3. Steve Houston says:

    Joe, people don’t want the truth, not from the left or the right or even those who serve no political master. As such, I’d be a horrible candidate for office and if elected I’d surely meet an untimely demise way before my time courtesy of someone who had their hand deep in our collective pockets, so no thanks.