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Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council

County finally takes jail overcrowding seriously

We’ll see what this actually becomes.

go_to_jail

Chasing $4 million in grant money, Harris County officials on Thursday announced reforms in the criminal justice system to unclog dockets, lower jail population and address racial and ethnic disparities.

And because the changes are so important, they said, they will do it even if they don’t get the money.

“The pursuit of this grant has broken down the silos that we’ve been working in, independent of each other,” District Attorney Devon Anderson said. “Whether we win this grant or not, we are going to do these things.”

The changes mean two new dockets for violent offenders to get trial faster, more treatment and services for addicts and the mentally ill and diversion programs for mentally ill homeless people and low-level non-violent suspects.

[…]

Late Wednesday night, a little known committee that began meeting monthly under the late County Commissioner El Franco Lee submitted the county’s application for a grant that could mean $2 million a year for two years to put their plans into effect.

In preparing the application, the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council gathered data on arrest and release decisions, case processing and diversion and looked into recidivism and re-entry initiatives.

“What we found is that not one group is responsible for who is in the jail,” Anderson said Thursday. “We all are.”

To achieve the biggest of their stated goals, lowering the jail’s daily population which hovers around 8,500 by 1,800 people, officials are implementing several changes, including one often sought: the use of personal recognizance bonds instead of bail.

I was ruminating over how to respond to this, when Grits summed it up as well as I ever could have:

None of the suggestions being contemplated are much different from what every study panel and consultant who’s examined it has told Harris County since the turn of the century. It’s just that judges refused to stop using bond schedules, preferring to use jail to maximize pressure on defendants to enter plea deals, without which they feared their dockets would swell. So if the judges don’t cooperate, none of this works.

The hope is that judges will be able to use a new risk assessment tool as a fig leaf to justify doing something – getting rid of bail schedules – that everybody knows they should have done years ago.

[…]

If judges and the DA embrace these programs, the plan could work. But it won’t be because of a grant. These or similar changes have been staring the county in the face for at least a decade.

Certainly, Grits hopes they do all this; I’m just tired of hearing them promise they’re going to do it, which often seems to happen right about election time whenever voters start asking questions, one notices. So at this point my attitude is, “Show me, don’t tell me.”

Ditto that. The Press has more.

You have the right to a phone call

But it won’t help you much if you don’t know what number to call.

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

Sheriff Adrian Garcia

[Harris County Sheriff’s] Deputies on Wednesday outlined a pilot program they hope will help lower the jail population by letting detainees copy five numbers out of their phone before it is sealed in a bag with the rest of their valuables.

“Hopefully they’ll make a call to a family member or a friend and get a bonding company and get bailed out,” said Deputy Chief Fred Brown. “This will be a positive, as far as getting people out on bond.”

When a person is arrested and taken to the jail, the arresting officer takes that person’s purse or wallet, jewelry and other personal belongings, including their phone, and seals it in a property bag.

The bag is given to the property department at the jail and is held until the person is released.

To get access to the phone, the bag has to be retrieved and unsealed. Then to put it back in the property room, all of the paperwork has to be redone.

The solution, then, is to let the detainees write five numbers on their paperwork before the phone is put in the bag.

“It’s simple,” Brown said.

He said the simple fix is part of a strategy of many small steps to make the system work better in the long run. He noted that inmates who are able to find someone to bail them out cost the county less.

The root problem here is that in this day of smartphone contacts, no one actually knows any phone numbers any more. Why should they, when their phone remembers them for them? I’m old school enough to have a bunch of numbers that are critical to me memorized, but anyone I’ve gotten digits from in the last few years is just another entry in my address book. This proposal is such a forehead-slappingly good idea it’s amazing no one had thought of it before. If it helps even a few people get bailed out, it’s well worth it. Kudos to whoever came up with it. Hair Balls has more.

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.

If we need more courts, we should ask for more courts

I’m not sure why there hasn’t been more of a push to deal with this.

Harris County 1910 courthouse

As Harris County’s population continues to swell, more people means more crimes. And that results in more work for the county’s 22 felony courts.

But no court is busier right now than the 209th, which is overseen by Michael McSpadden, Harris County’s most senior felony court judge. He has a docket of pending cases that eclipses all other felony courts locally.

With a caseload of 1,159, McSpadden has 440 more pending cases than his colleagues’ average of 718, according to a report this month by the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Judges and others say the larger the docket, the more every case is slowed down. That means suspects who are lingering in jail and the victims in those cases may wait years for the case to go to trial, plead out or get dismissed.

The correlation between the size of the docket and the quality of justice, however, is a hotly debated question.

[…]

The more than 1,100 cases in his court is a surprising number that even McSpadden says needs to come down.

“This is my 31st year on the bench and when I had one of the better dockets, I was criticized that I might be rushing cases through – putting too much pressure on attorneys to plead cases, which was certainly not true,” McSpadden said last week. “In the past three years, it has built up, and I have no idea why. I don’t think my attorneys are handling cases differently.”

[…]

“The best judge in the criminal courthouse has the highest docket,” said Todd Dupont, president of Houston’s criminal defense lawyer organization. “(McSpadden) doesn’t let fear of the size of his docket dictate the quality of the proceedings, which is where a lot of judges fall short in Harris County.”

Dupont, who practices in front of McSpadden, said the problem in Harris County is that other judges worry too much about docket sizes.

“Historically we have seen judges use that reasoning to encourage people to plead guilty,” Dupont said. “Who cares about the size of the docket? Conversations about dockets are meaningless unless you use it as a tool of oppression, and that’s just mean, and probably illegal.”

[…]

“The bottom line is we haven’t had a new court since 1985, and the filings haven’t slowed down and aren’t going to slow down,” [Presiding Judge Susan] Brown said. She said there is little hope of getting more judges, more courts or more money. “We’re trying to find creative ways to resolve these issues because we’re not going to get any help.”

Although the crime rate has fallen in recent years, the county’s population continues to grow, creating a net increase in criminal cases going through the system.

Since 1985, when Houston’s last criminal district court was created by the Legislature, the number of felony filings has doubled from 22,000 a year to 44,000. Courts that used to see 1,000 cases a year are now scrambling to deal with twice that many.

Well okay then. Maybe there isn’t much hope for getting more judges, but has anyone asked? If the number of felony filings has doubled since the last time there was a new criminal court added, then isn’t that some pretty strong evidence that there’s a need? I recognize that Harris County may not want to have to pay for more judges, but if everyone is so concerned about the quality of justice being dispensed in courtrooms with such overflowing dockets, isn’t it irresponsible not to ask for more judges? Complaining about it isn’t going to change anything. There’s a fundamental disconnect here.

I should note that there is another way to deal with this, one that doesn’t involve a legislative or financial solution, and that’s to file fewer felony cases. Though there was no breakdown of that “22,000 felony filings” number, I’ll bet that a significant fraction of them are drug cases, and that a significant fraction of those are non-violent possession cases, including the infamous “trace cases” that are now being filed as felonies again. As of a few months ago at least, that had not caused an increase in the county jail population, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an effect. We could file fewer such cases as felonies, and we could push the Legislature to reform the laws that make drug possession and other non-violent crimes felonies. Again, though, complaining is not likely to bring about any changes.

Not a big enough picture

The headline on this story reads “County mulls big-picture health council”, but a read of the story makes it clear that there’s a big piece of this picture missing from the discussion.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Harris County is discussing a big-picture approach to its complex and overlapping health care costs, proposing the creation of a council to coordinate spending on mental health, public health, the treatment of jail inmates and the county’s hospital district.

The proposed group would mirror the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, created in 2009 to improve the justice system and reduce jail overcrowding. Though they acknowledge many factors are involved, county leaders note the jail population has fallen since some of the council’s proposals – such as launching a public defender’s office and letting inmates who enroll in vocational or educational programs earn three days’ time for each day served – were implemented.

“We not only have about 30 percent of all the property tax money going to the hospital district, but we have other areas that we support: mental health, incarcerated health and public health,” said Budget Management Director Bill Jackson. “All those together add up to almost $600 million a year, and I think that this council would bring people together, show their different needs. It deserves a lot of attention and a lot of coordination.”

[…]

The issues the health council would confront are hard to overstate, Commissioner El Franco Lee said. The same citizens often cycle through the jail and public hospitals, he said, with great overlap among homelessness and mental and physical health troubles. The result, he said, is a huge burden on public resources.

For example, $47 million of the sheriff’s proposed $391 million budget would be allocated to inmate health care. The county jail has been called the largest mental health institution in Texas; a quarter of its inmates take psychotropic medications on a typical day.

“So much of our dollars go into dealing with health,” said County Judge Ed Emmett. “I think every member of the court has said, ‘We’ve got find a way to separate mental health from the criminal justice system,’ and I think if we get everybody sitting together talking about it at the same time, we can make that happen.”

These are good ideas, and if a coordinating council for county health care makes sense to implement some of them then I support its creation. But let’s face it, if we’re not also talking about the need for Medicaid expansion and the huge benefits it would have for health care in Harris County, we’re not seeing the full picture. As Grits reminded us back in September, expanding Medicaid could have a large positive effect on these very citizens that cycle through the jail and public hospitals, not to mention the bottom line for those public hospitals. Medicaid expansion may not be on the table for the state right now, but there’s no reason Harris County can’t join with Dallas and other counties to formally request the right to do its own expansion. I’d conservatively guess that expanding Medicaid would affect over 200,000 people in Harris County, and I’d bet that more than a few of them are well known to the jail and the public hospitals. We can pay for all that ourselves, or we can take advantage of the Affordable Care Act and get the federal government to pay for the vast majority of it. If advocating for that isn’t part of any county health care coordinating council’s mission, then I don’t understand what its mission is.