Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Caprice Cosper

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.

go_to_jail

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.

[…]

[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.

We have to worry about jail overcrowding again

Not good.

go_to_jail

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.

More ankle monitors

Harris County will try using ankle monitors on some inmates as a way of reducing the jail population.

The program, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court last week, is the county’s latest stab at thinning the jail population. As of Wednesday, the county had 9,850 inmates, including 978 being held in other Texas counties or in Louisiana due to lack of space at the downtown lockups.

“Ankle monitors for certain prisoners make a lot of sense so that we don’t have to bring them into the jail and use up jail cells for them,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “The frustrating thing is, that idea’s been around for years. Finally, we’re getting to it. It’s about time, and I’m glad we’re doing it.”

Electronic monitoring is common but rarely has been used in lieu of a jail sentence, said Caprice Cosper, the county’s director of criminal justice coordination. Last year, 883 people were monitored electronically by the county’s Supervision & Corrections, Juvenile Probation and Pretrial Services departments.

Hey, it’s a Caprice Cosper sighting! I was beginning to think she’d been shipped to another county, too.

The pilot program will run until Sept. 14. County officials then will consider whether to expand it, said the sheriff’s chief administrative officer, John Dyess. Ideally, offenders would be given their monitors at court and never booked into jail, Dyess said.

Choosing who is sentenced to house arrest and fitted with a monitor will be up to the two County Court-at-Law judges and two District Court judges who signed up for the pilot program.

Interestingly, this story does not mention another pilot program from January, in which some inmates who work outside the jail were fitted with the monitors. I presume that must have gone off without any major incident, as it would seem unlikely that Commissioners Court would approve any further experimentation if it had. That program was run by the Sheriff, whereas this one is being done in the courts. Like that one, this won’t make a big dent in the inmate numbers – it’s still the same old same old that has not yet been adequately addressed – but every little bit does help. I wish them success with this test.

County hires jailers to save money

Harris County Commissioners Court has finally admitted that having an adequate number of jailers is more cost-effective than paying for scads of overtime. Just as Sheriff Garcia has been saying all along.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s payroll was a contentious issue last year. More than once, Garcia asked permission to add employees, saying shortages exacerbated by the county’s hiring freeze were driving the department’s $21 million overtime bill for the fiscal year that ended Feb. 28.

Court members sidestepped many of those requests and criticized Garcia for seeking the hires and for other perceived missteps.

The tone has changed considerably since the county adopted its leanest budget in years March 8.

“They were just being eaten alive by the overtime, and they need to fill those positions,” County Judge Ed Emmett said Tuesday. “This is the first step.”

The next step, which really should have been the first step, should be to finally do some of those things we’ve been talking about forever to reduce the jail population so that fewer jailers are needed in the long term. Anybody know what Caprice Cosper is doing these days? Be that as it may, my next step will be to apply a little mockery where it’s needed:

Commissioner Steve Radack, a frequent Garcia critic, supported the move.

“Court is trying to work to solve some of the budgetary problems of the sheriff’s department, and I think the court is willing to cooperate with elected officials who want to cooperate with the court,” Radack said. “That cooperation will affect the bottom line when it comes to … saving taxpayers’ money.”

Mm hmm, just like the Sheriff said it would. Am I the only one who is reminded of this?

Of course, the only thing that Steve Radack and Arthur Fonzarelli have in common is that they both jumped the shark. But you get the idea. A statement from Sheriff Garcia, who unlike me chose to take the high road, is beneath the fold.

(more…)

Still talking about jail overcrowding

Here’s another op-ed about jail overcrowding in Harris County and what to do about it. It’s all familiar stuff – we’ve only been talking about this for a million years or so – but I was struck by what wasn’t said.

Harris County has made strides to safely reduce the jail population. Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos has changed the way her office prosecutes drug possession cases by no longer jailing anyone caught with trace amounts of drugs. This policy change has had a significant positive effect on reducing the jail population without an increase in crime. Sheriff Adrian Garcia has adopted pilot projects for low-risk offenders sentenced to jail. Harris County also created a public defender office, which hopefully can curtail the mass guilty pleas that principally occur because the defendant just wants to get out of jail.

We strongly urge implementation of the strategies recommended in 2009 and expounded on in a Houston Ministers Against Crime report earlier this year.

You can read more about that Ministers Against Crime report, including the report itself, here. What’s missing from this discussion is any mention of Harris County Jail Czar Caprice Cosper. What has she been up to? Google News has nothing, and a plain old Google search has nothing of substance since last February. We know what to do, we just need to quit writing reports and actually start doing it. The DA’s office has done some things, and the Sheriff’s office has done some things, but the judges for the most part are still doing what they’ve been doing with bail and bonds. When is that going to change? Grits has more.

We’re still not bonding out enough people

I’m sure this will make a lot of people uncomfortable.

More than 15,000 people were collared in Harris County for misdemeanors in the final months of 2010, but 70 percent of white inmates were released on bond before trial, compared to 50 percent or less of Hispanics and African-Americans, a new report critical of detention practices shows.

White criminal defendants also generally had to pay lower bonds for their freedom, according to a report released by the Houston Ministers Against Crime. The group of politically connected pastors claims aggressively locking up those who have been accused — but not yet convicted — for crimes like fighting and trespassing costs taxpayers big bucks and harms poor communities “struggling under the ongoing financial crisis.”

Last week alone, more than 840 people accused of misdemeanors remained jailed at a cost of about $38,000, or $45 per person daily plus processing expenses, Harris County Sheriff’s Office records show. Many are poor and unwilling or unable to pay fees of $200 or less to a bondsman.

Houston Ministers Against Crime released the new report to urge county judges and commissioners to correct a racial and socioeconomic imbalance they claim hurts poor people accused of crimes as well as others.

“Due to widespread economic woes, many of our citizens are unable to raise the money necessary to post bonds on even relatively minor cases,” the report says. “Even while presumed innocent, they remain in custody as their jobs are lost and their financial troubles worsen. This hardship further undermines their families and communities.”

Any discussion of race, in almost any context, is going to make a lot of people feel defensive; include the criminal justice system in the conversation and you increase it exponentially. I’m far from immune to that. But the numbers are what they are, and however you want to explain them it does no one any good to deny them. We need to understand what’s going on here. The main thing I’ll point out is that in addition to the burden on the individuals and their families, this is a huge cost to the taxpayers at a time when we’re making massive cuts to programs we want and need. A better and more just approach will not only benefit the people who are currently in jail but don’t need to be, it will save us millions of dollars.

58 percent of the county’s 9,700 current jail inmates remain “pretrial,” the week’s statistics show. Among them are disabled adults, teenagers, the mentally ill, substance abusers and first-time offenders who often get mixed in with hard-core felons.

Judges alone could decide to allow more misdemeanor and other nonviolent criminal defendants to remain free before trial if unable to post bond, but Harris County jurists rarely use so-called personal recognizance bonds, other records show.

Harris County District Judge Belinda Hill, the newly elected administrative district judge, said a judge-led group already is collecting information on pretrial detention and she’d like to expand it to include community members.

“This is an important area that judges have begun evaluating and will continue to do so,” she said.

Pardon me for saying so, Your Honor, but it’s time the judges stopped evaluating and started taking action. How long has the process to reduce jail population been going on, and what tangible steps to change how things are done can we point to? Grits is equally unimpressed:

Given that consultants paid by the county said many years ago that rising rates of pretrial detention were the main cause of jail overcrowding, the idea that judges have only now “begun evaluating” the issue seems laughably, pathetically obtuse, not to mention way late.

A large number of the judges who were up for re-election last year, and who benefited from that ginormous Republican wave, were criminal court judges. What have they done to alleviate this problem rather than contribute to it? The next report I’d like to see would show what percentage of defendants are granted or denied bonds by each judge, and what percentage of defendants are granted personal recognizance bonds. This problem didn’t happen on its own, and it won’t be solved without applying some pressure where it’s needed.

You can read the full report here; it’s not online, but I requested and received a copy in email and uploaded it as a Google doc. See this Chron editorial for more.

Public defender office gets OK from Commissioners Court

Good.

The Harris County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to start a public defender office on an experimental basis, as long as the state covers the $4.4 million cost for the first year.

The unanimous vote authorizes the county to apply for a grant from the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense. If awarded the money, Harris County would open an office with lawyers dedicated to representing indigent defendants full time in October. It would start with mis demeanor mental health cases and felony appeals cases.

Within two years, it would expand to a staff of 68 handling about 6,400 criminal cases of all types in the civil and district courts. The office’s lawyers would be involved in about half of all felony appeals, about a quarter of juvenile cases and smaller percentages of adult misdemeanors and felonies, according to projections provided by Caprice Cosper, director of the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

A public defender office would not replace the current system, in which judges choose defense counsel for the indigent from a randomly generated list of lawyers. The result would be a hybrid system for indigent defense in which the public defender and judge-appointed lawyers would share the caseload.

You can learn more about the Task Force on Indigent Defense here; my thanks to Scott Henson for leaving a comment in my previous post about them. Here’s hoping the grant application is successful.

Another step forward for a public defender’s office

I’m not sure exactly what this entails, but it’s good to see progress.

Harris County plans to launch a limited public defender office in October if it receives a $4.4 million state grant.

The office would start with 30 people defending the indigent on appeals of felony cases and in misdemeanor cases with mentally ill defendants.

If approved, the state money would cover the cost of the office for the first year and a decreasing share of the costs the following three years. At the same time, the public defender office would expand to take on adult felony defendants and juvenile defendants on its way to becoming a full-service in-house defense firm for local criminal court cases.

Currently, judges appoint lawyers for indigient defendants from a randomly generated list. The county spent $33.8 million last year on court-appointed defense.

The proposed public defender office would not replace the current system, but result in a hybrid, said Caprice Cosper, director of Harris County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

See here, here, and here for some background. I don’t know what state funds are being applied for or what the criteria are for getting them, but I presume the ducks will be in order. There’s an item on tomorrow’s Commissioners Court agenda to deal with it. As you know, I think a public defender’s office is a good idea, and I’m glad to see progress being made on implementing it.

A county budget threefer

Three items of interest in the news that relate to the Harris County budget.

Contemplating cremation

Commissioners Court this morning discussed possibly changing to a cremate-first policy at Harris County’s public cemetery.

A report from the cemetery director projects that the county’s 18.7-acre cemetery will be full some time next year, necessitating the purchase of a 25-acre plot for $7 million.

Switching to cremation instead of burial would save the county about $60,000 a year in operations. It would also give the county five to seven years before it would have to purchase more land for another cemetery, county budget officer Dick Raycraft told the Court.

Makes sense to me. I might argue that this should be the default going forward, not just till more land can be acquired. What do you think?

The business of bail bonds. Beyond the likely uncollectable money that the county is owed, and the pathetic resources the county has to try anyway, the meat of the story is this:

Under tough policies adopted more than a decade ago, Harris County’s judges created a huge boom in the local bonding business by denying nearly all accused criminals’ requests for so-called personal bonds — even for many people accused of low-level crimes like drug possessions or misdemeanors, records show. Meanwhile, district judges also raised bond rates for low-level repeat drug offenders and for anyone suspected of living illegally in the United States.

Those judicial decisions forced more people to pay bail bondsmen nonrefundable fees of at least 10 percent to win release or simply stay in jail, where the number of pretrial prisoners has mushroomed, argues Gerald Wheeler, a Ph.D. researcher and retired Harris County pretrial services director who has studied the system.

Wheeler describes the county’s oversight of bonding as “inefficient and convoluted” and advocates a broad-based review and reform of the entire system.

The policy of denying personal bonds was advocated by Republican judicial candidates in the 1994 and 1996 elections, and implemented by them after they won. As Grits says, it’s time to go back to how it was before. Which brings us to the last story:

Harris County may look to reserves for Sheriff’s Office. As we know, the county hopes to save some money by spending less on the Sheriff’s department. This doesn’t represent a change in that thinking, it’s more a desire to be realistic about what the costs actually are and be up front about it. But it does connect very clearly to the previous story:

A growing jail population has fueled a 66 percent increase in sheriff’s spending during the past four years.

The sheriff has spent about $34 million this year alone on overtime, much of it to cover shifts at its understaffed jail. A consultant’s study in December concluded that the county has 342 fewer jailers than it needs.

“It begs the question as to whether or not the number of employees he has is enough,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia. “If it’s not, then let’s hire the people with the same money we’re spending on overtime.”

[County Judge Ed] Emmett, too, suggested that hiring more deputies could actually save the Sheriff’s Office money.

It probably would. So would going back to personal bonds so that fewer people who don’t need to be in jail wind up there anyway. Has anyone heard anything from our jail czar lately?

The county budget blues

The news keeps being bad. Not unexpected, but bad.

During hearings last month, department heads said worst-case scenarios could mean layoffs, less mosquito spraying, tax office closures and fewer resources to serve a still-growing county population.

County Auditor Barbara Schott’s $1.36 billion revenue forecast is close to that worst-case scenario. The county is projected to spend $1.410 billion in the fiscal year that ends Feb. 28.

[…]

The report, which was prepared before Schott revised her revenue estimate downward, puts the sheriff’s budget at $361 million in the coming year. The department is expected to have spent $424 million when the current fiscal year ends a week from now. The sheriff’s department had not yet received the report and a spokesperson had no comment Friday.

A public health department spokeswoman said the same. Public health officials reported last month that they would have to lay off as many as 40 in the worst-case scenario, but the $28.4 million allowance in Friday’s budget numbers appears to protect it from the deepest cuts.

Commissioners Court’s annual consideration of the property tax rate does not occur until September. Schott and [county budget officer Dick] Raycraft plan to review service charges and fees in the next few months and would make any recommendations to the court in September.

Cuts to the Sheriff’s budget make more sense than cuts to the public health budget, because cuts to public health budgets tend to cost you more in the long run. People still do get sick and need emergency care in tough economic times, after all. As long as the cuts to the Sheriff’s budget are based on the expectation that the jail population will decrease due to the efforts of the jail czar, then it’s the right idea. In addition, the Sheriff will see some savings from no longer having to deal with a big backlog of Internal Affairs complaints, which will free up some deputies to get back on patrol and hopefully cause County Commissioner Steve Radack to quit whining for a little while.

So, when the Commissioners get together in September to discuss the property tax rate, what do you think are the odds that they will revisit that 2007 rate cut, which had little effect on most people’s tax bills but which added up to millions of dollars for the county’s coffers? My guess is it’ll be politely ignored, what with there being an election coming up and all, but I suppose one never knows.

How to uncrowd the jails

Defense attorney Rob Fickman makes the case for dealing with Harris County’s jail overcrowding problems.

Jail overcrowding creates unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Locking up the wrong people does not leave sufficient room to lock up the right people, those who are truly dangerous. It also exposes the county and the taxpayers to expensive lawsuits. The jail overcrowding has gone on far too long in this county.

Finally, however, there is some good news. The county has wisely taken the step of appointing former state District Judge Caprice Cosper to be jail czar. She will have a tough job. People don’t just happen to be in jail. Someone puts them there. Those responsible for overflowing our jails to the point where we have to export humans will need to change. Behaviors long entrenched will have to be modified.

Those responsible for putting people in jail must recognize that the jail is not theirs’ alone. Jail space is a county resource paid for by the citizens. The overcrowding is a direct result of people spending that resource without any accountability, often for all the wrong reasons.

There are three groups of people directly responsible for overcrowding our jails. If they are made to be accountable for spending our resource, for wasting jail space, then they will change their behavior and our overcrowding problem will be solved.

Our 37 criminal court judges, the district attorney’s office and the defense bar are all accountable for the jail overcrowding. We all play a hand in the problem. We must all play a hand in formulating and implementing the solutions.

He then lays out a plan for how to do this, which pretty much boils down to “Stop being needlessly and wastefully harsh about setting bonds”. The role he envisions for the District Attorney and the defense bar is basically to stop being complicit in the outlandish bonds that the judges set. Guess he sees one of these groups as being perhaps a tad bit more responsible for the problem than the others. I presume convincing her former colleagues to be more reasonable will be Jail Czar Caprice Cosper’s main task if she wants to achieve a good result. Which makes me wonder what her bond-setting practices were like when she was on the bench. Anyone with insight into that want to comment on it?

On a tangential note, read about the three person commission that was appointed by the local judiciary to review requests to retest DNA evidence filed by defendants. This bit from the Q&A, answered by “veteran appellate defense attorney Bob Wicoff” was interesting:

Q: Are there good reasons to operate a regional crime lab?

A (Wicoff): One good reason, and we’ve seen this on the serology project, is when you have a lab as a part of a law enforcement agency, it becomes rather incestuous. And we have found instances in the serology review of lab technicians actually changing the result to fit what we can only surmise has been told to them as to what the right result should be. We got a confession here, this guy is good for the crime, now we need objective scientific testing. A regional lab would, presumably, solve that.

I think having such a lab be independent of law enforcement is more likely to produce that kind of outcome than having it be regional, but I suspect Wicoff was assuming that a regional lab would necessarily be independently run. My point is simply that there’s no reason you couldn’t have such a lab that only serviced Houston or Harris County; the reason to make it regional is to get more bang for the buck. Houston or Harris by itself might not be able or willing to pay for this, but if you added in all the H-GAC counties, for instance, that might do it.

Grits on the jail czar

When I blogged about the creation of a “jail czar” position in Harris County whose job it will be to deal with overcrowding in the local jails, I said hoped that Scott Henson would comment on it. He did leave a comment in the post, which he has since expanded on at his own blog.

From my perspective, the two biggest drivers at the Harris County Jail of both overcrowding and cost are excessive pretrial detention and the evolution of the jail into the county’s main mental health treatment facility, both of which will require more than “coordination” by a “czar” to fix.

That said, the solutions, at least, are fairly clear: 1) Convincing judges to expand the use of personal bonds instead of requiring bail for low-level offenses, and 2) expanding outpatient mental health services, housing and specialized community supervision through the probation department (including making sure they take their meds) for mentally ill offenders, particularly those who are frequently in and out of the jail on low-level offenses.

The first is almost purely a political problem of convincing local elected judges to change their bail decisions; the second is mostly an issue of resources, with responsibility lying chiefly at the feet of the county commissioners court and the local MHMR authority to provide community-based alternatives to jail.

I’ve asked the Harris County Sheriff’s PIO office for a copy of the consultant’s study that recommended creating the “czar” position, so I’ll have more on this subject after I finally review that document. The same consultant analyzed the Harris Jail four years ago and this Grits series adumbrated at that time many of the same recommendations about which the county is finally (apparently) getting serious now.

Perhaps having a former member of the judiciary (Caprice Cosper) as the czar will help to convince the current judges that a change in their bail-setting policies is needed. And since Commissioners Court hired Cosper in the first place, perhaps they’ll listen when she tells them to do something about mental health and mental retardation issues. I can hope, right?

The jail czar

I think the whole “czar” thing is overdone, but if it takes hiring a person whose only job it is to focus on jail overcrowding to get something done in a real and lasting way about it, then so be it.

Commissioners Court is expected today to appoint a former state District Judge Caprice Cosper serve as “jail czar” to head a council of elected officials grappling with overcrowding that has plagued the Harris County lockup for years and prompted the county to send more than 1,000 prisoners out of state.

A criminal justice coordinating council — comprised of 11 elected county officials — was one of 28 recommendations made last month by Justice Management Institute, a Denver-based consulting firm that authored an exhaustive, $150,000 study of the county’s troubled justice system.

The study noted the rising jail population — which more than doubled in five years — is driven largely by an upsurge in arrests for possession of trace amounts of illegal drugs, as well as a lack of facilities and services for large numbers of mentally ill, who make up 25 percent of the jail population. The county’s over-reliance on antiquated record-keeping in paper files and outdated computers was cited, as was the need for coordinated oversight of all related criminal justice operations.

“There’s a misconception that’s there one single thing and there’s not, there’s not a silver bullet,“ said Caprice Cosper, an executive assistant to Commissioner Steve Radack and a former district judge who is expected to be approved as council director.

“There are a lot of puzzle pieces that need to be looked at,” Cosper said. “Harris County is lucky in that it has a lot of (criminal justice) data … but we don’t have it in the form we need to answer questions we need answered.“

[…]

Leaders of the county’s defense bar were disappointed at not getting a seat at the council table.

“When you get all stakeholders together to discuss the issue, you’ll formulate the very best plan. If you leave out a major stakeholder, I think you plan to fail,“ said Earle Musick, past president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyer’s Association. “We’re kinda used to it.”

Sheriff Adrian Garcia said he was eager to work with other county officials to find alternatives to sheltering large numbers of mentally ill, as well as those who are in jail awaiting trial because they cannot make bail.

I think that covers most of the important points. Obviously, this is going to take coordination, and cooperation from the District Attorney and the various judges as well as from Sheriff Garcia. I do think not having a member of the defense bar on the council is a mistake, but it doesn’t have to be a fatal one. In the end, the results will tell the story. I should note that Grits wasn’t all that impressed with Sheriff Garcia’s Sunday op-ed – he thought it was vague and unspecific. As the Harris County jail situation has been a regular beat of his, I’ll be very interested to see his take on this.