As we know, Sheriff Garcia has been trying to rework the jail bond referendum that failed in 2007 into something that can be passed. On Tuesday, Commissioners Court will have a look at the new proposal, which calls for a 1200-inmate “booking center” that’s being touted as a gateway into and out of the jail system, aimed primarily at arrestees with mental health issues.
“It’s much more than a booking facility,” said Steven Schnee, executive director of the Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County. The current booking center is so crowded that there is space for neither specialists nor places to send the incoming other than cells.
What the new center would offer is a “Door B,” Schnee said. He does not know what exactly will be behind the door, but he envisions a place where various agencies that serve the mentally ill can set up a one-stop area that avoids the complications of shuffling a patient from one organization to another — or finding a particular inmate among the 9,400 distributed in three downtown buildings.
“If all of the money is being pulled toward the jail, there may not be the funds to focus on the alternatives,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The costs of running a new building – utilities, staffing, maintenance – will compete for tight budget dollars with reforms that would divert more mentally ill arrestees into treatment instead of cells, said Levin and Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
“When economies get really difficult,” Yanez-Correa said, “the first things that are cut are treatment programs.” Such a scenario removes programs that could save taxpayer money in avoided jail costs while retaining the debt, interest and operational costs of a new facility.
The devil is in the details here. The goal is to reduce the inmate population, which in turn will reduce the amount that Harris County spends on locking people up. I do not and will not support anything that expands our capacity to warehouse inmates. If this new facility is geared towards moving people who will be better served by treatment out of the jails and into mental health programs, then I will most likely be in favor of it. I will need to know what specifically this is for, and how it will be funded. Yanez-Correa’s concerns are well-taken, especially since that’s what’s happening right now at the state level. If we’ll be depending on the state to provide the money for mental health and other treatment services, what will happen if and when that money gets cut? I’m willing to hear what the Sheriff has to say, but these are the things I’ll need to see answers for.