This is unequivocally good news.
Dropping inmate numbers at the Harris County Jail will let the county end its nearly 5-year-old practice of shipping overflow inmates to Louisiana and other Texas counties within days, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said this week.
The jail population has fallen 31 percent since 2008, to 8,573 inmates. The jail has a capacity of 9,434, but has at times held more than 12,000. Garcia hopes the expense of contracts with far-flung jails – totaling $31 million in the last two years – has ceased for the foreseeable future.
As of Friday, the sheriff had no inmates in Louisiana and just 21 elsewhere in Texas; more than 1,600 inmates had been outsourced as recently as June 2010.
“I don’t want to be overly optimistic that this is forever a thing of the past,” Garcia said. “There are factors outside our control that could occur at any given time. But we’re excited that today’s reality is that we no longer will be having people outsourced outside of Harris County and that it will be a savings to the taxpayers.”
We’ll discuss those outside factors later. I want to pause for a moment to take credit for the use of the term “outsourcing” for sending inmates elsewhere. I’ll be even happier if a few years from now we’ve forgotten that it was ever needed. The fact that (nearly) all of our inmates are now here in Harris County should not obscure the fact that there are still too many of them; at least, there are still too many of them for the number of guards in the jails. We have patched this problem, for which the county’s multiple-year hiring freeze is an exacerbating factor, by squeezing a lot of overtime out of the guards, a solution that is both unfair to them and expensive to us. Now that we’re not paying Louisiana to house some of our prisoners, maybe we can take some of the money we’d been spending on that and use it to hire a few more guards. The Sheriff will make that request at the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. I can’t wait to hear what their excuse to turn him down will be this time.
So why are there fewer inmates to outsource, anyway?
Officials attribute the drop in inmates to several factors:
Local and national crime rates are down. There were 36,851 new felony cases filed in Harris County last year, down from 38,133 in 2010, and 44,006 the previous year. Misdemeanor courts also are sending fewer inmates to jail.
Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos’ decision to stop filing felony charges against suspects found with trace amounts of illegal drugs as of Jan. 1, 2010. Those carrying used but empty crack pipes or other drug paraphernalia now face misdemeanor tickets.
“We did the right thing and then all these other benefits flowed from it,” Lykos said. “There are more officers on the streets, we have jail cells for dangerous criminals, and we can get to trial quicker.”
The county has launched various diversion programs. In April 2010, Garcia began allowing nonviolent inmates who enroll in educational or work programs to earn three days’ credit for each day served. As of mid-December, 3,661 inmates had been released early under the program, which can shave up to two months off the maximum county jail sentence.
Again, as you know, I agree with and applaud Lykos’ policy. It was the right thing to do, for the reason she states, and you can see the benefit we have reaped from it, in dollars and cents. The Sheriff’s new diversion programs, aimed as Lykos’ trace-amount policy is at non-violent offenders, is also showing measurable results. The old maxim about locking up those we fear and not those we’re just mad at has a lot of wisdom in it. If we make better choices about who we throw in jail, it costs us less money. You may say that comes at the expense of public safety, except that the violent crime rate is down, in Houston and in Harris County. It’s not locking up more people, it’s locking up the right people that makes a difference.
As good as all this news is, there is still a lot of room for improvement:
Earl Musick, president of Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, cheered the drop in jail population, but said his group remains concerned at the number of inmates who are awaiting trial, unable to make bail.
The number of pretrial detainees fell along with the jail head count last year, but their share of the total population stayed at about 60 percent. On Friday, 6,220 of the jail’s 8,573 inmates – or 73 percent – were pretrial detainees.
“I’m not saying everyone in jail is innocent, but there are innocent people that are having to make that decision: ‘I guess I’ll give up my right to a trial so I can get out of jail,’ ” Musick said. “We’ve been shouting this message for years that not everyone charged with a criminal act needs to be locked up.”
Musick praised the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, and said judges are beginning to examine their pretrial and sentencing choices.
Those numbers include a lot of people who will not be convicted of any crime, or at least of any crime that would normally include jail time, who are nonetheless going to spend days, weeks, even months in jail because they couldn’t make bail. Some of these people will wind up being acquitted, having their charges dropped, having their charges pleaded down to non-jail offenses, or being convicted and ultimately being sentenced to less time than they served pre-trial. This is the judiciary’s responsibility, and while they are making improvements, they have been responsible for this for a long time. Get enough of them to adopt more sensible practices, or to be replaced by those who will, and Sheriff Garcia won’t need to grovel before Commissioners Court for more jailers, as reducing the numerator in the inmate-to-guard ratio also accomplishes the task. Whether we do this the more cost-effective way or not is all our choice. Grits has more.