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Still talking about a new jail

We’re going to be having this conversation for awhile, I expect.

As he attempts to secure a new jail for Harris County, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has hired nearly 90 more guards but still faces skepticism from commissioners about whether a new facility is the only solution to chronic overcrowding and failed inspections.

Garcia argued earlier this month for the construction of a new jail, after the downtown lockups failed a fourth state inspection in six years because of broken toilets and intercoms. He said a new facility would alleviate persistent problems with maintenance and overcrowding at the facilities that house more than 10,000 people.

County and state officials have watched previous plans for a new jail fizzle because of a lack of voter support or the Sheriff’s Office’s guard shortage. They repeatedly have said other methods must be used to address overcrowding, including modification of bonding and pretrial diversion policies. Recent numbers show that half of the jail’s population is made up of people awaiting trial.

“A new jail would have to be a last resort,” Commissioner El Franco Lee said last week.

You know where I stand on this. As I wrote when this came up before, I’m open to the idea of a new jail as a replacement for the existing facility, but we absolutely need to deal with the underlying reasons for the overcrowding in the first place before we commit to anything. No plan, no new construction.

The discussion could culminate next month when Commissioner’s Court expects to receive a report from Justice Management Institute, which is performing a “top-to-bottom” review of the local criminal justice system. The court also is scheduled to hold its annual meeting to discuss its capital improvements plan.

“Why would we make any decisions until we have all the information?” asked Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “The last thing we want to do is to put (a new jail) back on the ballot and have it fail again.”

Agreed. And I’ll be one of those No votes if we haven’t moved forward significantly in dealing with things like pretrail services, bail, probation, etc.

Since January, [Sheriff Garcia] has hired 87 civilian jailers and cut openings in patrol, through new hires and transfers within the department, from about 70 to 22, according to Lt. John Legg, a spokesman for the department.

“Summer is a peak recruiting period,” Legg said. “We expect June and July to be big months for hiring.”

I’m sure it will be, and I’ve no doubt that the department is a better place to work now than it was last year. Having said that, I’m sure a big driver in this is the economic downturn. It’s not like there are a lot of other job openings out there, after all. Which means we need to make sure we can retain these folks when things get better, or else we’ll be right back where we started, possibly in a bigger jail with more inmates to guard. And that gets us back to the need to make sure we’re not locking up people we don’t really have to. Fix that, and the rest takes care of itself.

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