With backing from the city of Houston, Harris County is reviving a long-discussed plan to build a facility to process inmates into the county jail, and to offer the mental health services that many of them need after they are released.
Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized searching for an architect to draw up plans for the so-called joint processing center. The City Council is expected to follow suit by agreeing to pay half of the $250,000 needed for those plans in the coming weeks.
“The mayor’s office is ready to participate with us in the study and the evaluation, but the first assignment is to pick somebody to do it, and we’re taking the lead on that,” Art Storey, director of the county’s public infrastructure department, told commissioners on Tuesday.
The goal is to complete the proposal and cost estimate by June so that the facility could be financed through a bond referendum as early as this November. Other financing options also are being explored, said Bill Jackson, the county’s chief budget officer.
The county has been discussing the need for a new booking or processing center for years as its current one has been operating over capacity even as the jail population has fallen. The city is partnering in the effort as it hopes an expanded intake facility would allow it realize its longstanding goal of shuttering its two aging jails.
You may be thinking “Wasn’t there a bond referendum for this back in 2007, and didn’t we vote it down?” The answer is Yes on both counts. What’s different about it this time is that the county jail is no longer overcrowded, inmates are no longer being outsourced, and most importantly there’s a recognition that keeping the inmate population down is a good thing. The concern in 2007 was that we were simply being asked to build more jail space so we could hold more inmates. Whether that really was the plan or not back then, there’s no question that this is not the purpose of the joint processing center now. We’ve got our priorities in order now.
Commissioner Steve Radack said the center “needs to go a long way in keeping the mentally ill out of jail.”
“The last time this was really looked at, there wasn’t probably as much thought in it as there is today in reference to the mentally ill,” he said. “Today begins the new process.”
A recent county analysis showed 920 inmates cycled through the county jail more than five times in the past two years, 60 percent of whom were mentally ill and 63 percent of whom were homeless.
“A joint processing center, I think, will provide an opportunity for us to do a much improved job for potentially diverting certain low-level offenders who are not a threat to society with mental illness from incarceration,” said Steve Schnee, executive director of Mental Health and Mental Retardation Authority of Harris County.
That would be a huge step forward. There are still a lot of details to be worked out here, but all the indicators, from our attitude about how to deal with mentally ill offenders to city-county relations, are pointing in the right direction.