After a nearly two-year hiatus, the Harris County jail population is nearing capacity, prompting officials to again consider whether to ship some inmates to out-of-state lockups.
The latest jail population report shows the total number of detainees dropped significantly from 2009 to the end of 2011, when the population finally dipped below the 9,434-inmate capacity. Since January, though, it has increased from 8,581 to 9,340, the highest it has been in nearly two years.
Local officials say there are a variety of factors at play, and that the county is not alone.
Among them: The recent closure of two prisons, which has resulted in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice taking longer to pick up inmates destined for prison. There also have been recent increases in the number of felony case filings, detainees awaiting trial and parole violations, the population report shows. Then there is the historic trend of jail populations swelling in the summer and declining in the fall.
“It’s not one, single thing,” said Caprice Cosper, who heads the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.
Harris County, though, also has seen felony filings increase by more than 18 percent in the last two months, as well as a 36-percent increase in the first half of the year in the number of people convicted of felonies but ordered to spend time in the county jail instead of going to prison.
That includes convictions for so-called “trace cases,” where people are arrested for possessing less than 1/100th of a gram of an illegal drug.
The late District Attorney Mike Anderson, who took office in January and died of cancer last month, sparked speculation that the jail population would increase when he decided to prosecute trace cases as felonies. His predecessor, Patricia Lykos, treated the cases as misdemeanors, saying it was difficult to accurately test drug residue and the arrests took officers off the streets for too long.
While the number of state jail felonies being filed, including for trace cases, has not changed dramatically, Cosper said “what has gone up is the way they are being punished.”
>During the first half of last year, 1,670 state jail felons were sent to the county jail. That increased to 2,273 during the first half of this year.
“That’s all trace case policy,” said lawyer Patrick McCann, a former president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association who recently was appointed by Gov. Rick Perry to the Specialty Courts Advisory Council.
The end result of all this is that the county is talking about the need to outsource inmates to Louisiana again. That would be an embarrassment if it were to happen. Caprice Cosper thinks it won’t need to come to that, as TDCJ will start picking up inmates in a more timely manner and some new legislation aimed at diverting convicts from jail will kick in. I hope she’s right, but in the meantime it would be wise if someone were to press our new District Attorney about the trace case policy. As recently as March it was reported that there had been no increase in the jail population due to the resumption of filing trace cases as felonies. We need to take a long, hard look at that, and at the number of felonies being filed overall. We know that the criminal court dockets are overcrowded, and that has an effect on the jail population since it means longer wait times for cases to be resolved. We also know that lack of ability to make bail, plus a lack of personal recognizance bonds issued by the courts adds to the problem as well. The Chronicle reported on that less than two weeks ago, but that connection wasn’t made in this story. Caprice Cosper is right to say that this problem has many aspects. Some of them go back a long way, back to the bad old days of Harris County shipping inmates all over the place. The fact that we haven’t needed to do that lately doesn’t mean we’ve fully addressed the underlying causes that got us into this situation in the first place.