I think the whole “czar” thing is overdone, but if it takes hiring a person whose only job it is to focus on jail overcrowding to get something done in a real and lasting way about it, then so be it.
Commissioners Court is expected today to appoint a former state District Judge Caprice Cosper serve as “jail czar” to head a council of elected officials grappling with overcrowding that has plagued the Harris County lockup for years and prompted the county to send more than 1,000 prisoners out of state.
A criminal justice coordinating council — comprised of 11 elected county officials — was one of 28 recommendations made last month by Justice Management Institute, a Denver-based consulting firm that authored an exhaustive, $150,000 study of the county’s troubled justice system.
The study noted the rising jail population — which more than doubled in five years — is driven largely by an upsurge in arrests for possession of trace amounts of illegal drugs, as well as a lack of facilities and services for large numbers of mentally ill, who make up 25 percent of the jail population. The county’s over-reliance on antiquated record-keeping in paper files and outdated computers was cited, as was the need for coordinated oversight of all related criminal justice operations.
“There’s a misconception that’s there one single thing and there’s not, there’s not a silver bullet,“ said Caprice Cosper, an executive assistant to Commissioner Steve Radack and a former district judge who is expected to be approved as council director.
“There are a lot of puzzle pieces that need to be looked at,” Cosper said. “Harris County is lucky in that it has a lot of (criminal justice) data … but we don’t have it in the form we need to answer questions we need answered.“
Leaders of the county’s defense bar were disappointed at not getting a seat at the council table.
“When you get all stakeholders together to discuss the issue, you’ll formulate the very best plan. If you leave out a major stakeholder, I think you plan to fail,“ said Earle Musick, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “We’re kinda used to it.”
Sheriff Adrian Garcia said he was eager to work with other county officials to find alternatives to sheltering large numbers of mentally ill, as well as those who are in jail awaiting trial because they cannot make bail.
I think that covers most of the important points. Obviously, this is going to take coordination, and cooperation from the District Attorney and the various judges as well as from Sheriff Garcia. I do think not having a member of the defense bar on the council is a mistake, but it doesn’t have to be a fatal one. In the end, the results will tell the story. I should note that Grits wasn’t all that impressed with Sheriff Garcia’s Sunday op-ed – he thought it was vague and unspecific. As the Harris County jail situation has been a regular beat of his, I’ll be very interested to see his take on this.