For the third consecutive year, the Harris County Jail system has failed to meet state standards because of prisoner crowding, an issue expected to be discussed today by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
During a four-day on-site review in April, commission inspectors found that jail officials have failed to maintain the required inmate-to-guard ratio of 48-1.
At the time, more than 9,000 inmates were housed in the county’s jail complex in downtown Houston. The commission report did not state the actual ratio at the time of the inspection.
Now you may be asking yourself “Why do I care if a bunch of inmates are inconvenienced?” This is why you care:
Terry Julian, executive director of the commission, noted Wednesday that state inspectors in their 2004 and 2005 reports have cited Harris County for the same problem.
He also hinted the commission could be ready to finally hold Harris County accountable for the jail situation.
“I cannot say what the commission will do, because they make the decision on that, but I would tend to say yes (they will),” Julian said.
The commission’s options include the rarely used measure of closing the jail or ordering the sheriff’s office to send some prisoners to other counties – with the accompanying expenses and logistical problems.
In other words, the continued incompetence and mismanagement of Sheriff Tommy Thomas could cost Harris County a bunch of money and headaches. Who knows how many other dangerous inmates may be able to escape under these conditions? All because Tommy Thomas is doing a poor job.
What does Thomas have to say for himself?
The sheriff, however, is optimistic it won’t come to that.
“Hopefully, they’ll work with us and give us some time,” Thomas said.
Like three more years, maybe? It’s nice that you have hope, but what’s your plan?
In fairness to Thomas, the Harris County judiciary shares some of the blame here for jail overcrowding.
Thomas also said he would like to explore ways to reduce the number of inmates coming into the jail.
A recent study requested by the county’s district courts concluded that many low-risk defendants in the county jail may be there because they are unable to afford bond.
That report also states that Harris County judges underutilize Pretrial Services – an agency set up to gather information for the judges on defendants eligible for free or low-cost bonds.
I refer you once again to Grits and his series of articles on how bond issues have stuffed the jails full of people who don’t really need to be there. If Thomas can actually make headway with the judges who are responsible for that, then he’ll have taken an important step in the right direction. I’m more skeptical than optimistic about that, but we’ll see.
UPDATE: So much for hope.
The Texas Commission on Jail Standards today ordered Harris County to begin easing its crowding problem by sending prisoners to other county jails in the region.
Such an operation could cost the county about $1 million per month.
The commission, concluding for the third consecutive year that the County Jail has failed to meet state standards, told county officials to outsource prisoners to achieve the prescribed prisoner-to-guard ratio of 48-1.
That could mean sending more than 500 prisoners to other jails.
The commission voted on the outsourcing order this morning in Austin.
One million bucks a month. Though dumb-about-bail judges and the penny-wise-but-pound-foolish County Commissioners’ Court played a role in this fiasco, the ultimate blame falls squarely on the incompetent shoulders of Sheriff Tommy Thomas. What an inexcusable waste.