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The city jails have problems, too

I suppose I’m not surprised to find out that the Houston city jails have their share of problems, but I’m a little puzzled by this article about them.

The inspection was conducted as part of a legal consent decree originating with a class action lawsuit in 1989. The city agreed to quarterly inspections at that time which had always been conducted by criminal justice consultant Gordon Kamka, who died last year.

His most recent report in June 2008, which contained about two pages of findings, found barely any problems except that some phones were not working and that inmates had been improperly forced to select “either a blanket or mattress” upon intake.

“Both jails were clean, and operating efficiently during the course of this inspection,” the report said. It was the 50th inspection Kamka had conducted.

David Bogard, the new inspector hired in April 2009, found many issues he termed “serious” in his May 26 report.

It strikes me as odd that the new inspector would find so many problems less than a year after the place got a mostly clean bill of health. Was the old inspector phoning it in? Was the new guy overly picky? Apparently, most of the issues he cited were then resolved shortly thereafter. I feel like I’m missing some context here. Can anyone fill in some blanks?

I can believe that there are issues that are related to the age of the facility – Council Member Melissa Noriega talked about that in my interview with her. Having said that, I take issue with this:

Police and city officials believe the best solution may lie in building a new jail or intake center that will be operated by Harris County, although voters shot down such a proposal in a bond referendum last year.

You can’t talk about that referendum without noting that it was sold as an expansion of the Harris County jails, designed to deal with the persistent overcrowding issues. I opposed that, as I’m sure many other folks did, because that was a wasteful solution to the problem, which is that we’re locking up way too many people, often for poor reasons. Had that referendum been simply about replacing aging facilities with updated ones, I could have supported that. But I refused, and still refuse, to subsidize the shortsighted and misguided policies and practices of the judiciary and District Attorney that acts as if jail space is a limitless and costless resource. If you need a reminder about that, read today’s story about our overcrowded county jails.

Though the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to a speedy trial, at least 500 county inmates have been locked up for more than a year as they wait to be judged, according to an analysis of inmate data by the Houston Chronicle.

About 1,200 have been jailed six months or more though many face only minor felony charges, such as bouncing checks, credit card fraud, trespassing or even civil violations. In fact, around 200 inmates, theoretically innocent until proven guilty, appear to already have served more than the minimum sentence for the crime they allegedly committed, based on the newspaper’s analysis of inmate data provided by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

[…]

Only a handful of accused felons — just 376 out of more than 38,000 cases last year — get released before trial based on their own pledge to appear when required, according to reports from the county’s own Pretrial Services program. That’s a tiny fraction of the 14,966 people who scored as low risk in pretrial interviews last year, one of the major factors judges consider in making bonding decisions. As a result, many people who can’t afford to post bail simply stay in jail, including some accused only of misdemeanors.

“We’re looking at all of that, on scheduling of court cases and so forth, about giving priority to jail cases,” said District Attorney Pat Lykos. “Right now you cannot tell by looking at the case how long someone has been in jail … I can’t give you answers right now because we don’t have the data to base a rational answer, but we’re going to get it and we’re going to get it soon.”

[…]

A group of Harris County judges recently requested that the county commissioners fund a public defenders office to handle criminal appeals and so-called state jail felonies, low-level cases that commonly clog the jails and courts. So far the commissioners have not responded to that request.

Instead that proposal has been folded into the work of Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group formed to study bond, prosecution and other systemic problems behind a 50 percent boom in the jail population from 7,600 in January 2004 to 11,500 in February 2009, the county consultant’s report says. The county’s annual bill: more than $192 million.

It’s not clear to me what that $192 million refers to – total cost of the jails? increased cost of all those extra inmates? something else? – but whatever the case, it’s a lot of money. Think your property taxes are too high? If we weren’t paying $40 a day to lock up nonviolent people who haven’t yet been convicted of any crime, maybe our tax bills might be a tad bit lower. So why would I want there to be more jail space, so that more people who don’t need to be locked up can be? When county officials get their act together and deal with the underlying problem – and I have some faith that they will now – then we can talk about new facilities. But not until then.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

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2 Comments

  1. Baby Snooks says:

    It will probably take the Department of Justice coming in to clean everything up. Mainly by taking a broom and sweeping some people out.

    One problem is the backlog. We have the same number of judges we had ten years ago but the number of cases have nearly doubled.

    Maybe the Harris County Republican Party couldn’t find enough attorneys to fill the new benches so it didn’t become an issue?

    A second problem is the drug arrests which most thought were handled through the drug courts which may or may not exist. It may be a matter of “repeat offenders” but if it is perhaps it’s time for everyone to accept reality the way Mexico did and decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. Our draconian drug laws obviously do not have any impact on the problem and perhaps it’s time to focus on real problems. As for the position that people on drugs commit crimes, well, when they commit a burglary or forge a prescription, then charge them with the crime.

    Many victims of what are called “interpersonal crime” including domestic violence and sexual assault are dismissed on the basis of “he said, she said” and what is called “insufficient evidence” and other bases which in reality are just ways by which a prosecutor can reduce the caseload. For some reason they would rather lock up a person arrested for having one joint than a husband or boyfriend who has knocked his wife or girlfriend around and threatened to kill her next time. Which he often does. Or she does. We have some mean mommas out there boys.

    It’s all about priorities. And about minorities. If someone really looked at the matter in that sense they would probably find that the majority of those being held without bond on minor offenses are of course minorities. Which is, again, why it will probably take the Department of Justice coming in and cleaning up by sweeping out.

  2. […] for the jail stuff, I’ll say it again: If we’re just talking about building a replacement facility for the city, I’m okay with that, at least in theory. If this is a back-door way to add more jail space as […]