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Who gets the blame for the county jail problems?

I’ve been pointing my finger pretty steadily at Sheriff Tommy Thomas for the problem of our county jails being overcrowded, which has led the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to order the relocation of inmates at a cool $1 million per month to Harris County. Today, the Chron runs a letter to the editor from Randall Kallinen, the president of the Houston chapter of the ACLU, who puts the blame elsewhere.

THE three-year-long Harris County jail overcrowding crisis has not changed and the problem lies squarely at the feet of the local judiciary due to draconian practices that, in some instances, are not even practiced anywhere but Harris County. Decreasing the jail population by 500 is simple and does not put the public at risk.

Just last year, Judge Caprice Cosper agreed that the Harris County jail population of 941 state jail felons was huge and that the judges planned to address the problem. They did not and now that population is 1,294 – a whopping 70 percent of the state total of 1,850. Most of these jail inmates are nonviolent drug users – not sellers – who are supposed to have benefited by the state’s new law to put first-time drug offenders into treatment.

Harris County also leads Texas in the odd practice of giving “jail time as a condition of probation.” Even after a jury or plea bargain mandates probation, judges often order some jail time in addition to the probation.

Harris County has a probation revocation rate of 17 percent, which is the highest of any large county in Texas. Harris County judges themselves have noticed the difficulty in meeting the myriad probation requirements yet have not acted to lower probation revocations to put Harris County in line with the rest of Texas.

Forty percent or around 3,700 of the jail’s population have not been convicted of a crime but are merely awaiting trial. A few decades earlier only 25 percent of the jail inmates were these “pretrial detainees.” Such a difference equates to over 500 more inmates today.

Several judges even jail defendants who have not promptly hired a lawyer after they have initially bonded out of jail. Such jailing violates the law and points to a Harris County judicial predisposition to jail defendants as a solution to perceived problems.

It is time to put the Harris County criminal justice system into a semblance of Texas sanity and for the courts to implement the law’s mandated compassion to ease jail overcrowding.

I don’t dispute that the judiciary plays a role in this mess. Neither does Sheriff Thomas, who was happy to do a little finger-pointing of his own after the TCoJS lowered the boom last week. The local judiciary’s insistence on locking everyone up without any regard to reason or expense is a genuine problem, one that likely won’t see any amelioration until the Republican domination of the bench is broken. Once again, I refer you to Grits for Breakfast, which has done all the heavy lifting on this topic.

Having said that, however, I still believe that the buck stops with Thomas. As far as I can tell from searching the Chron’s archives, the first reporting on jail conditions was done last July, after the TCoJS nailed Harris County the second time for overcrowding. While I’m certain that smarter bail and sentencing policies by the judges would go a long way to alleviating the problem, the fact still remains that Sheriff Thomas had closed off more than 1600 jail beds due to a staffing shortage. The lack of beds, caused by the lack of deputies, is a huge part of the TCoJS’ indictment of our jails. And remember what Thomas said at the time:

Thomas, the sheriff, conceded that the county doesn’t have enough jailers to deal with its prisoner population.

He also acknowledged that he has not asked county commissioners for money to hire more jailers but said he now believes he must.

So, what happened with that request? The most recent story says that they’re attacking the problem “through extensive use of overtime and working aggressively to hire new jailers.” Why did it take so long to start hiring? It’s been ten months since that first report, after all.

Bottom line is that while the judges play a role, Sheriff Thomas is in charge of the jails. He owns this problem. Whatever he thinks the cause of that problem is this week – judges, the DA’s office, the County Commissioners, the TDCJ, cosmic radiation – it’s his responsibility to deal with it. If he can’t handle that, then let him step aside so we can find someone else who can.

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2 Comments

  1. Bruce M says:

    When every District and County Court Judge is a former prosecutor (it’s almost as though that’s a prerequisite for the job), the jail ends up getting crowded. Quit voting for prosecutors as judges.

  2. Charles Hixon says:

    Overcrowding, according to the sheriff, is not due to inadequate facilities but due to an inadequate inmate-to-guard ratio. Since the sheriff budgets annually, Kallinen’s argument detailing a three-year-long overcrowding crisis is flawed and self-serving. If the sheriff has requested, through his annual budget, the payroll required to hire more guards, then the sheriff has done his job. If Commissioners Court has repeatedly denied the sheriff’s request, then the buck stops at Commissioners Court.