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We still need to reduce inmate headcount

The Harris County jail’s population is down from historic highs, but with the usual summer uptick coming, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has asked for a waiver to make some more beds available.

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State officials have rejected a request from Sheriff Adrian Garcia to increase the capacity of the Harris County Jail and said local leaders have not done enough in recent years to reduce the inmate population.

The inmate population at the state’s largest lockup has fallen in recent months after exceeding building capacity for the first time in two years last September, but the Sheriff’s Office says it is too close for comfort. The population is known to swell in the summer months by as much as 1,000 inmates, said spokesman Alan Bernstein, noting that Garcia’s request was intended to create some “flexibility” as county leaders work to reduce the jail population.

The building capacity of the county jail system is 9,434; the population on Monday was 8,814.

Garcia last week asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for permission to increase the number of supplemental beds used when the population swells, replacing 680 hard plastic cots with 1,064 metal bunk beds. He also asked that the jail still be able to use up to 100 mobile cots known as “boats” or “low-riders.”

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards agreed only to let Garcia replace the 680 cots with bunk beds to save 5,000 square feet of floor space, keeping the inmate capacity the same.

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[Sen. John] Whitmire said one thing the county – its judges, in particular – is not doing that frustrates him the most is refusing to grant no-cost personal bonds to nonviolent offenders with relatively stable lives, something other large metropolitan areas in Texas are doing with increasing frequency.

Last month, 69 percent of the county’s 8,559 prisoners were pretrial detainees rather than convicted criminals serving sentences, according to the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, which the county created in 2009 improve the justice system and help reduce jail overcrowding.

“There’s no basis not to allow a charged person that has a job, a family and a permanent residence, who is nonviolent, but can’t come up with $1,000, to go back to work and agree to show up next month,” Whitmire said.

Caprice Cosper, director of the coordinating council, said the pretrial detainees are “not necessarily the easy population people might want it to be,” noting that two preliminary analyses have shown that about 90 percent of those detainees who are there for longer than five days have higher-than-standard bond amounts, indicating they are not first-time offenders.

There should be no need to draw inferences about the offense history of these more-than-five-day detainees. We should have hard data available about them. And even if they are mostly repeat offenders, it doesn’t follow that they’re necessarily the kind of dangerous offenders that need to be kept off the streets before their hearings. Sen. Whitmire is correct about the lack of personal recognizance bonds, and about the reluctance by judges to find alternatives to incarceration for arrestees awaiting trial. It may be that we’re doing more than we might think, as Caprice Cosper suggests, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more – a lot more, even – that we could be doing.

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