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Tommy Thomas

Chron overview of the Sheriff races

The candidate who isn’t there nonetheless plays a central role.

Appointed incumbent Ron Hickman faces two repeat challengers in the GOP primary, while four others, including former Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez battle for the Democratic nomination.

The candidates square off in an election year when criminal justice issues are on the forefront of the public consciousness, following a year and a half of protests across the country over how police use lethal force during interactions with the public, particularly involving minorities.

“There’s been a lot more scrutiny as there’s been more reporting on issues from brutality or misconduct amid patrol, to misconduct among jail guards, to sanitary issues in the jail,” said Jay Jenkinsof the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. “For the first time in a long time, it feels like the general public is realizing what responsibilities come with that office, and how sheriff has the ability to help or hurt on those issues.”

Former Sheriff Adrian Garcia beat out Tommy Thomas eight years ago on the heels of a string of headlines about numerous inmate deaths, a high-profile civil rights lawsuit and thousands of deleted emails under a Thomas policy that violated state law. He resigned the post last May when he ran unsuccessfully for mayor; Commissioners Court appointed Hickman to finish Garcia’s term, which ends Dec. 31.

The landscape is different today, but the department again has come under scrutiny over inmate deaths and allegations of abuse, poor medical care and other problems in the jail dating back to 2009.

Hickman’s supporters argue that the majority of those issues occurred under Garcia’s regime, and that state inspectors gave the facility high marks when they inspected it last December.

It’s not a big surprise that the primaries for Sheriff are in their own way about Adrian Garcia. Jeff Stauber on the Democratic side is a pretty strong critic of Garcia’s term in office, as you can hear in the interview I did with him. His belief is that the HCSO needs someone with experience in the office as the person in charge, a charge that conveniently works against both Ed Gonzalez and Ron Hickman. As for Hickman, invoking Garcia now is basically a defensive move, but if he’s still doing it in the fall it will surely be as an offensive maneuver. As he will have been on the job for more than a year by then there’s no guarantee that the voters will accept that, but there’s no reason why they couldn’t. I suspect that once we get past March, Hickman will prefer to talk about the things he has done rather than things his predecessor did, but I’m sure the latter won’t be too far beneath the surface, if it’s beneath it at all.

Chron overview of Sheriff primaries

No, it’s not 2008, though there are a couple of superficial similarities.

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez

On paper, Ed Gonzalez is a near-replica of former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

The Latino Democrats served in the Houston Police Department and represented the same district on City Council. Eventually, both were appointed mayors pro-tem.

Now, eight years after Garcia unseated Harris County’s longtime Republican Sheriff Tommy Thomas, Gonzalez, 46, again is looking to follow in his political mentor’s footsteps.

“We don’t need just a manager. We really need a reformer,” the soft-spoken Gonzalez, a former hostage negotiator, said during an interview at Montrose’s Blacksmith coffee shop. “That’s what I represent.”

Garcia vacated the sheriff’s post last May to run for Houston mayor, at which point members of the county’s commissioners court replaced him with Republican Ron Hickman. Garcia came in third and now is challenging Congressman Gene Green, the longtime District 29 representative, in the Democratic primary.

Gonzalez and Hickman are widely viewed as the favorites in the Democratic and Republican primaries, respectively.

[…]

Gonzalez is up against sheriff’s lieutenant Jeff Stauber, 52, constable’s lieutenant Jerome Moore, 42, and Theodore “Ted” Perez in the Democratic primary.

All of them face a steep fundraising climb in a primary unlikely to draw much notice. Stauber reported $1,200 in the bank as of the end of 2015, while the others did not file end-of-year finance reports or reported having no cash on hand.

Asked about his top three priorities, Gonzalez listed crime prevention, jail management and working within the office’s budgetary constraints.

“I’m really going to look at some diversion programs,” Gonzalez said, adding that he supports channeling low-level drug offenders to treatment and support services rather than jail.

Stauber, who is running his first campaign for public office, criticized Gonzalez for keeping six homicide case files, including those for one active case, when he left the Houston Police Department in 2009. Gonzalez had placed the files in a box while clearing out his work area and did not return them until the department launched an inquiry into lapsed murder investigations years later.

Police charged a suspect in one of those murder cases within two weeks of receiving the file.

“A family, their investigations were held up for five years,” Stauber said. “I think that needs to be looked at.”

Stauber, who said he most recently voted in a Republican primary, plans to focus on officer training and education, technology and improving community relations.

Moore and Perez did not respond to interview requests.

My interview with Ed Gonzalez is here, and my interview with Jeff Stauber is here. Adrian Garcia cruised to an easy win over the scandal-plagued Tommy Thomas in 2008, but he was in a good position to win regardless thanks to the overall Democratic surge in Harris County that year. Ron Hickman is an appointed replacement Sheriff, not a troubled longtime incumbent, so that dynamic is very different, but the effect on the outcome of partisan turnout levels is not. More Democrats than Republicans voted in 2008; Thomas’ problems mostly helped Garcia run up the score. The Sheriff election this is more like an open seat race than anything else, and barring anything strange it will likely be decided more by turnout levels than anything else. As someone with a mostly clean slate, I think Hickman gets some benefit of the doubt, meaning that his Democratic opponent will have to either find some effective points of attack against him, or rely on a sufficiently high surge. We’ll have a better idea of how that might go once we know who the Presidential candidates are.

Separating the Sheriff and the jail

As Commissioners Court prepares to name a replacement Sheriff, they have some bigger plans to discuss as well.

go_to_jail

A revolutionary idea is being pitched that would reshape the law enforcement agency by removing the troubled jail from the sheriff’s responsibilities. One county commissioner is leading the charge to create a new jail administrator who would answer to Commissioners Court rather than the sheriff.

Garcia recently announced his resignation so he could run for mayor of Houston. As would-be sheriffs scrambled to get résumés to Commissioners Court to fill Garcia’s term through 2016, the most vocal proponent of carving up the job over the past week has been Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack.

Radack believes the sheriff should handle police work and other directors should be held accountable for the jail, its health system and its information technology division. He said the jail’s budget is bloated, mental health cases should be better monitored and the sheriff should focus on patrolling, preventing and investigating crime in unincorporated areas of the county.

This division of power is untested in Texas, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. Brandon Wood, who runs the commission, said Bexar County is the only one under the state’s local government code to assign a person to run its jail, but even in that case the sheriff oversees the jail administrator.

There is some precedent elsewhere. County supervisors in Santa Clara, Calif., split the county jail from its sheriff, with voters’ approval, in 1988 in the wake of rampant overspending on the part of the officeholder. A consultant for the reformed jail, Jeffrey Schwartz, said Santa Clara’s department of corrections answered to county supervisors until the arrangement was ultimately rescinded in 2012.

Commissioners have long questioned Garcia’s management of the jail. The most recent scandal stemmed from his firing of six jailers, suspension of 29 others and the demotion of a major in the wake of a grand jury indictment of two jail guards in the case involving a mentally ill inmate housed in a bug-infested cell.

One might get the impression from reading this story that problems at the Harris County jail began with Adrian Garcia. In reality, of course, the jail was a longstanding cesspool of neglect and mismanagement thanks to the ineptitude of Tommy Thomas. Thomas couldn’t have done it without the utter lack of oversight from Commissioners Court that he received. It wasn’t until after the voters finally sent Thomas into retirement that Commissioners Court – in particular, Steve Radack – began to give a crap about how the jail was being managed. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Is this idea even legal?

Robert Soard, first assistant Harris County attorney, said separating the health department at the jail is legal, under a 2011 revision of the state statute, but the current law designates the sheriff as “the keeper of the county jail.” So the legal question that County Attorney Vince Ryan’s office has been researching in advance of the sheriff appointment is whether a jail administrator can answer to Commissioners Court under Texas law. As Wood explained, the sheriff has discretion to appoint someone to run the jail. However, the law says “the sheriff shall continue to exercise supervision and control over the jail.”

Alan Bernstein, legislative liaison for Garcia, said what is being proposed seems untenable: “There’s a state law that controls this issue and until there’s a different law there would be nothing (for us) to respond to,” Bernstein said. “It isn’t Adrian Garcia’s state law. It isn’t state law for Harris County. It’s state law for every sheriff in every one of the 254 counties in Texas.”

Soard said the county attorney’s office will advise Commissioners Court how to attempt this setup only if it is legal.

I’m no fan of our current or previous Attorney General, but isn’t this a question for that office? I know that AG opinions take, like, six months to get written, but wouldn’t we all feel a little better if we knew someone had been researching this for all that time?

And is it even workable?

Radack said his idea is to create more transparency and efficiency. He envisions the court making a verbal agreement with the new sheriff about a separate jail administrator, which could later be formalized. However, the deal would not be binding. “Ultimately, the sheriff has the opportunity to revoke the agreement,” he said.

From an organizational perspective, it makes some sense to split the responsibility for the jail out from the Sheriff’s office, much like many counties have moved responsibility for elections out from the County Clerk’s office. It’s not clear to me how adding in an appointed administrator adds to transparency and efficiency, however. I’d like to hear a lot more about that. If this is a condition of employment for the Sheriff that the Commissioners are about to appoint, well, what does that say about accountability and public involvement? Shouldn’t the public at least have a chance to learn about this idea and come to an opinion about it before the Court moves forward on it? I’m just saying.

And, as Stace worries, if this is a back door to some kind of harebrained jail privatization scheme, well, that’s a huge can of worms to open at a very convenient time. I sure hope that isn’t the ulterior motive here, but it’s not like it should surprise anyone if it is.

More on disciplining deputies

Here’s another long Chron story about disciplinary statistics for Harris County Sheriff’s deputies. Reading through it, I felt like there was some context missing.

A Houston Chronicle review of disciplinary records indicates that from 2008 through 2010, more than 200 jail employees were disciplined for various offenses, some serious and others minor. Last year, the Sheriff’s Office disciplined 88 employees working in detention, including jailers, deputies and civilians.

Their offenses included excessive use of force, having sex with inmates, mistakenly releasing dangerous prisoners including suspected drug dealers, sleeping on the job, and even leaving their post to have a 90-minute-long domino game. One jailer destroyed mail sent to prisoners, and another ruined a picture of an inmate’s son by spraying it with cleaning solvent.

[…]

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, in a prepared statement, said his office “employs many dedicated and professional women and men. They are the rule rather than the exception.”

The U.S. Justice Department cited a “flawed” use of force policy in a June 2009 report, adding that “systemic deficiencies” in policies and training for jailers exposed inmates to harm. Investigators found a significant number of instances where jailers used force inappropriately – including hog-tying prisoners or using choke holds – and claimed jail commanders did not interview prisoners or take corrective action.

Garcia said training and the internal complaint process has been improved and that unjustified use of force incidents against prisoners are isolated, adding they have declined during his three years in office.

A review of disciplinary actions in 2011 indicate seven jailers were punished for using excessive force against inmates and another for not reporting using force on a prisoner, the same as seven cases that brought disciplinary action in 2010.

The Sheriff’s Office provided statistics indicating a decrease in the number of jailers assaulted by inmates, as well as a decline in use of force by jailers on prisoners and fewer fights between inmates. There were 130 assaults on jailers by inmates and 3,084 prisoners involved in fights with each other in the jail last year, Garcia said.

“Our policies and practices on staff use of force against inmates take into account that, as the figures indicate, the usually calm and orderly jail environment nevertheless can sometimes be a dangerous place for employees and inmates,” Garcia stated.

If this story seems familiar to you, it’s because the Chron wrote a very similar story on October 30, which I blogged about here. A sample from that story:

A Houston Chronicle review of Sheriff’s Office discipline reports from 2007 to August provides a sobering look into a department plagued by deputies, jailers and civilians accused of violating laws they are charged to enforce and breaking department policies more than 1,200 times in the past four-and-a-half years.

In all, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has fired 81 deputies and jailers from January 2009 through August, considerably more than the 36 employees let go by his predecessor, Tommy Thomas, during 2007 and 2008. Garcia, who took over the department in January 2009, has also suspended 273 employees without pay and given 414 written reprimands.

[…]

[Garcia] said he decided not to examine past disciplinary actions to identify and remove any “bad apples” he inherited when he took office in early 2009. Instead, he felt it was more important to triple his internal affairs unit to reduce a backlog of more than 160 internal affairs complaints pending against deputies when he took office.

The embedded chart was from that earlier story. Note that the data in that story goes back to 2007, and to 2008 in the newer story. What that means is that it’s hard to do an accurate comparison from one Sheriff to another. I don’t know if the data exists for earlier in the Tommy Thomas regime – if you go to the HCSO Internal Affairs page, you can see previous IAD reports, but again they only go as far back as 2007. What was it like before then? We have no idea as far as the numbers go, but I think we have a pretty good hunch nonetheless. Note that Garcia has stepped up IAD investigations to deal with a huge backlog of complaints, a decision for which he was attacked by Stave Radack, so in a sense the increase in disciplinary actions isn’t really on his watch. Note also that that 2009 Justice Department report was based on a visit from 2008, when Thomas was still in charge, and that at Garcia’s direction the use of force policies were changed to be more rigorous. Those facts were curiously unmentioned in the Sunday story. As Grits says, it’s great that this data is available and there are certainly stories to be written about it, but it’s important to remember what the data can’t tell us, because otherwise we’re getting an incomplete picture.

Fewer inmate deaths

More good news for the Sheriff’s office.

The number of inmates who have died while in Harris County detention has plummeted during the last three years, a decline that Sheriff Adrian Garcia described as “deeply satisfying” but could not explain.

Three county prisoners died last year, down from 11 in 2010, and 16 in 2009, according to a Houston Chronicle review of custodial death records.

[…]

Alan Bernstein, public affairs director for the Sheriff’s Office, said Garcia has held the jail’s medical staff to high standards and noted that about 400,000 inmates were medically screened when they were jailed during the last three years.

“Each death is thoroughly investigated in accordance with Sheriff Garcia’s mission to make the agency as accountable and transparent to the public as possible,” Bernstein said. “But there is no identifiable cause or set of reasons for why the number of deaths has fallen steeply. The overwhelming majority of deaths were due to medical conditions that afflicted the inmates before they became inmates.”

Bernstein said only three of the 30 county inmate deaths from 2009 to 2011 took place inside a jail, including two inmates the county sent to Louisiana to reduce crowding. The rest of the inmates died after being transported in custody from jail to a hospital for treatment.

The decline in inmate deaths follows a June 2008 U.S. Justice Department report that accused Harris County of violating the constitutional rights of jail inmates, citing an “alarming” number of deaths of inmates in jail or after they were taken to hospitals.

See here and here for some background on that DOJ report. The feds threatened a lawsuit if things didn’t improve but have not followed through. One hopes that’s a “no news is good news” situation.

As for the numbers, while I have no doubt that this reflects the many improvements made at the jail since Sheriff Garcia took over from Tommy Thomas, I also suspect there’s a similarity to the homicide figures, in that this year represents a dip below the “normal” level. What you want to see is a downward trend. More importantly, you want to see that all reasonable steps are being taken to ensure that trend is downward, which over the last three years it has been. There’s more good press for the Sheriff at KUHF, as noted by Stace.

Meanwhile, the city recorded two deaths at its jail facilities, both suicides, and reiterated its desire to get out of the jail business. It’s still not clear to me what the “sobriety centers” that would replace the jails might look like, but one presumes that they will be better equipped to handle badly intoxicated people who could be a danger to themselves.

Disciplining deputies

The Chron has a long story about the disciplinary issues at the Sheriff’s Department.

A Houston Chronicle review of Sheriff’s Office discipline reports from 2007 to August provides a sobering look into a department plagued by deputies, jailers and civilians accused of violating laws they are charged to enforce and breaking department policies more than 1,200 times in the past four-and-a-half years.

In all, Sheriff Adrian Garcia has fired 81 deputies and jailers from January 2009 through August, considerably more than the 36 employees let go by his predecessor, Tommy Thomas, during 2007 and 2008. Garcia, who took over the department in January 2009, has also suspended 273 employees without pay and given 414 written reprimands.

[…]

Garcia, a former Houston police officer, offered no insight on why employees continue to be cited for serious misbehavior, anymore than he could explain the ongoing drought.

“I don’t know why we haven’t had any rain,” Garcia said. “Why they make those decisions, I don’t know.”

He said he decided not to examine past disciplinary actions to identify and remove any “bad apples” he inherited when he took office in early 2009. Instead, he felt it was more important to triple his internal affairs unit to reduce a backlog of more than 160 internal affairs complaints pending against deputies when he took office.

Garcia said the county’s hiring freeze has caused him, in less serious cases, to be lenient on employees because if he fires them they cannot be replaced.

As an example, Garcia said in past years jailers caught sleeping on duty would be fired.

But he only terminated one of 18 jailers and deputies caught napping since 2009, the records show.

“One of the key mandates that I have continuously worked at is to make sure we are protecting the public’s trust,” Garcia said. “Unfortunately, since we are dealing with human beings, mistakes will occur. Poor judgment will occur. But what the citizens can take away is, even though I’m under a forced hiring freeze, even though I’ve lost hundreds of employees, I continue to investigate and terminate, where most appropriate, those employees who are making the most egregious type of misconduct.”

The bit about being lenient on some employees because they can’t be replaced if they get fired due to a hiring freeze is something I hadn’t thought about before. We already know that the county’s inflexible and ill-advised policy has cost millions of dollars in overtime, and now we see that it means the Sheriff can’t properly administer discipline as needed. Much like across-the-board budget cuts, hiring freezes are generally geared towards publicity rather than good policy, and the results bear that out.

Beyond that, the article focuses mostly on the individual stories, and doesn’t really consider a political angle. It’s easy enough to point out that if Tommy Thomas had done a better job of keeping his house in order, there would be fewer of these issues for Adrian Garcia to deal with, but that kind of message could be hard to get out if an opponent attacks Garcia strongly enough. As the story was lacking the obligatory boorish quote from County Commissioner Steve Radack, it’s a little hard to say what such an attack might look like. I’m sure it’s out there, though, and we’ll see it next year.

Still cleaning up Tommy Thomas’ mess

Some stains take a long time to scrub out.

The U.S. Justice Department is proceeding with an investigation of Harris County sheriff’s operations, after county leaders refused to enter into a civil rights settlement with the government or hire an independent monitor.

The investigation was sparked by the discovery of emails from sheriff’s commanders – before Sheriff Adrian Garcia took office – that disparaged religious, racial and ethnic groups. The inquiry also was prompted by the treatment of members of a Sikh family detained in late 2008 after calling deputies to their home to investigate a burglary.

County Attorney Vince Ryan in July asked the Commissioners Court to enter into a memorandum of agreement with the Justice Department that would have ended the investigation.

The agreement required the department to hire an internal affairs expert to review use of force and internal affairs procedures, as well as developing “diversity and cross-cultural awareness” training for new cadets and existing deputies.

The agreement also called for a written report after an eight-month review, which will serve as an outline to improve the handling of complaints against deputies from the public, how internal investigations are conducted and the training of officers who do them.

Nancy Sims has a concise summary. County Judge Ed Emmett called the agreement “onerous”, and I’m sure it is. Steve Radack whined that county people should be the ones overseeing county people. All I can say is that if county people had done a better job of that while Tommy Thomas was in office, we wouldn’t be in this spot now.

Jail privatization

Does anyone really think that privatizing the Harris County Jail would be a good idea?

The suggestion comes from Commissioner Steve Radack, who said the item is a way for the county to examine all ways of cutting costs as budget cuts take hold and scores of county workers are laid off.

“We need to look at trying to save taxpayers’ money and try to see if there’s a cheaper way of operating the Harris County jails,” he said. “I think the best way to do that is to put the request for proposals out on the street to see who’s interested and what their proposals are.”

The resulting ideas could result in a limited contract — for food or medical services, for instance — or total privatization, Radack said.

Anybody got a phone number for Accenture handy? I’m sure they’ll be happy to do a proposal.

County Judge Ed Emmett said it never hurts to seek efficiencies, but said he has reservations about the proposal.

“I wouldn’t be in favor of moving forward at all until somebody comes forward and says, ‘This is why privatization would be good,’ and gives me some concrete examples,” Emmett said. “Clearly, it would be a massive change that would be undertaken neither lightly nor quickly. … It’s one thing to say we’re going to privatize a jail in a very small rural setting, but to talk about a jail like ours, where not only is it a jail but it’s currently the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas — this is a large undertaking.”

As Grits points out, any savings would likely come from the privatizer paying guards less. Hey, that profit margin has to come from somewhere. Given the poor history of the jail with things like inmate deaths, sanitation, and access to health care back when Radack’s buddy Tommy Thomas was running things, this does not sound like a recipe for success to me. This proposal is really just another attack by Radack on Sheriff Adrian Garcia, since Radack never gave a damn about costs before Garcia’s election in 2008. Hopefully, this idea will get the quick burial it deserves.

It’s getting cheaper to outsource inmates

Now how much would you pay to ship your excess inmates somewhere else?

The county now can send an inmate to Louisiana for as low as $23 a day. Changes to the deal with the private Emerald Correctional Management also now have the company picking up the transportation tab that Harris County used to pay. The Bowie County judge actually called Harris County unbidden to offer a price break. Bowie had charged $42 per inmate per day. It now charges $39 per day for the first 300 prisoners and $38 for the next 100.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” said Jose Jimenez, the sheriff’s director of purchasing and a lead negotiator for jail space.

There’s more where that came from, too. Good for us that other counties’ poor decisions are now benefiting our county’s bottom line, but the real savings will still come from not having excess inmates to ship out.

I have long believed that what our public discourse needs is more penis references. I’d like to thank County Commissioner Steve Radack for doing his part to make that happen:

Commissioners Steve Radack and Jerry Eversole excoriated Sheriff Adrian Garcia during a June meeting for not sending inmates to the cheapest jails. At their prompting, the court last month changed the way it seeks jail deals.

Previously, the sheriff’s office negotiated with public and private jailers and brought the resulting deals to Commissioners Court for approval. Now, the court has turned the job over to the county purchasing agent, which put out a request for proposals from private and public jailers last month.

The new Bowie and Emerald deals result from the old system, Jimenez said, and from negotiations that started before June.

[…]

Radack said that seeking competitive proposals will get the county the best jail deals because it puts the purchasing agent, not the sheriff, in charge. That purchasing agent has independence from both Commissioners Court and the sheriff because he is appointed by a special board that neither controls. Just as Purchasing Agent Kelly Johnson now buys patrol cars for the sheriff, Radack explained, he can use his purchasing expertise to extract better deals for jail beds.

“His stick is a heck of a lot bigger than Adrian Garcia’s police baton,” Radack said.

Did you measure them yourself, Steve, or are you just projecting?

I’d ask why, if this is such a difference-maker, we weren’t doing it long ago, but as the story notes the market for excess inmates has taken a sharp turn in favor of the inmate suppliers in the past two years, so there probably wasn’t all that much to be done before. Plus, Radack never gave a crap about this when his buddy Tommy Thomas was Sheriff. I’ll leave it to you to decide where Thomas’ baton falls on the size spectrum.

Eversole and Radack get jail overcrowding religion

Actually, what County Commissioners Jerry Eversole and Steve Radack have is a case of criticize-the-Sheriff-itis.

Harris County Commissioner Jerry Eversole implied at meeting earlier today that the county’s sheriff, Adrian Garcia, acted improperly and wasted tax payer money when he moved inmates from a jail in Lousiana to a jail in Texas.

“If I were doing what Sheriff Garcia is allowed to do, I would be indicted,” Eversole said. “Not just looked at. Indicted! For being able to take a $28 prisoner and put him in a $45 jail. You tell me I wouldn’t be.”

If anyone would know about that, it’s Jerry Eversole. See beneath the fold for a response from the HCDP about this. But I digress.

Eversole, along with Commissioner Steve Radack, was particularly peeved that Garcia recently moved inmates between jails.

“Isn’t it true that we took people out of Louisiana, where we were paying less money to house them, and moved them into Texas where we pay more?” Radack said. “Why did this happen? How did it happen? How many millions did this cost us?”

Eversole added, “I don’t understand how [Garcia] can write a contract, or have it written, without anybody at this table having any say about it,” Eversole said. “Why does the sheriff get to choose?”

Garcia, after the meeting, answered the question quite simply: “I’m the jail administrator,” he said.

But, Garcia said, “Everyday we’re working to make sure we are getting the best market value for that process, and trying to find ways to get these inmates off of the tax rolls all together.”

Radack was all hot and bothered, too.

Maj. Mike Smith, who runs the jails for Garcia, said the death of a Harris County inmate in a Louisiana jail in February prompted a freeze while the death was investigated. The number of Harris County inmates in Louisiana dropped from about 1,000 to 165.

The county resumed sending inmates to Louisiana earlier this month after the investigation cleared officials there of wrongdoing in the prisoner’s death, and the count has climbed by more than 200 just this month.

The sheriff and the county budget director said they expect the county will send a much greater proportion of inmates to Louisiana in coming months.

“It’s too damned late,” Commissioner Steve Radack said at the meeting. “How many millions of dollars did it cost us?”

Sure is nice to see so much concern about how much Harris County is spending on incarceration costs, isn’t it? Well, here’s a fun exercise. Take a look through the Chronicle’s archives for any stories that contain the name Eversole, along with “jail” and “overcrowding”. I did such a search from January 1, 2001 through January 1, 2009 – that is, through former Sheriff Tommy Thomas’ last two terms – and got five articles. I did the same substituting “Radack” for “Eversole” and got 14. Here’s a sample:

From September 27, 2006:

The county may spend at least $260 million to build jails and juvenile-detention facilities as it tries to address state agencies’ criticisms that its jails are overcrowded.

Commissioners Court gave an initial green light Tuesday to building a $245 million adult-inmate-processing center downtown, a $22.5 million adult jail for low-level offenders in Atascocita and possibly an adjacent juvenile-detention facility at that location in far northeast Harris County.

[…]

The sheriff’s office is projecting its jail population will average nearly 9,800 inmates this year, more than 1,330 above jail capacity, says a report by the county’s budget office.

[…]

Commissioner Jerry Eversole, whose district includes Atascocita, praised the proposed location because it is not near residential areas. “It should not cause a tremendous amount of furor from the community,” he said. “It should be a good use of this property.”

The jail could be built in modular units, with the first 400-bed facility open by summer of 2008 and the facility completed by 2010, said Dick Raycraft, county budget and management-services director.

Lots of concern about how much we’re spending to house inmates, no? Here’s another, from December 11, 2006:

County Judge Robert Eckels and other members of Commissioners Court said the jails are needed to reduce overcrowding now and in the coming decades.

The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has cited the jail for overcrowding the past two years. Dormitory-like cells designed for 24 inmates have housed more than twice that number.

Eckels said the county cannot put off building the facilities, since its population is projected to double to 7 million in the next 20 years, and that will increase the need for jail capacity.

Even if some officials oppose the county’s bond proposals, the referendums still are likely to pass, said Commissioner Steve Radack. The last time a county bond referendum failed was in the late 1960s, said Dick Raycraft, director of county budget and management services.

Oopsie. Too bad they didn’t have a Plan B. From December 12, 2006:

Harris County currently spends nearly 16 percent – about $174 million – of its annual operating expenses on the current jail system. Adding the two proposed jails, where construction cost is at least $267 million, would increase maintenance costs to as much as 25 percent, say opponents of the plan. They say the county can maintain public safety without building the facilities.

The county has yet to determine exact costs to operate the proposed facilities. Two county leaders said they were not in a position to discuss what percentage of the county’s budget would be needed to maintain the buildings, but they would not dispute that most likely the percentage would rise.

[…]

Commissioner Steve Radack acknowledged that the county will spend more on jail expenses if the two jails are built. “The public will have to make a decision when it comes to the inmate population,” he said. “And that decision will be does the public want to keep people incarcerated or do they want to pay with damages and break-ins to their property and possibly their lives if we don’t keep people incarcerated.”

Translation: You need to spend hundreds of millions of tax dollars on new jails or WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!!! How much more fiscally responsible than that can you be?

You get the idea. Feel free to do the same search for yourself. The points I’m making are 1) Except for Radack griping about the state not removing convicted felons from the county jails soon enough, neither Radack nor Eversole expressed any concern about jail overcrowding or the costs associated with housing all those needlessly incarcerated inmates while Thomas was Sheriff, even though that’s when all the overcrowding problems happened; and 2) Both were perfectly willing to spend a crapload of money on new facilities, even as Radack now disingenuously criticizes Sheriff Garcia for floating a proposal similar to the one Radack himself backed strongly in 2007. The only difference between then and now – the only reason why they care so much about how much the county is spending on keeping people locked up – is the identity, and the party affiliation, of the Sheriff. The issue just did not exist for them while Tommy Thomas was in office. I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

By the way, Commissioners Court did not take up the matter of the proposed booking center, rendering it effectively dead for this year. County Judge Ed Emmett says he does not expect a bond issue to be on the ballot this November.

UPDATE: I guess I didn’t make myself fully clear here. I’m being sarcastic about Radack and Eversole “getting religion” on jail overcrowding, because the only concern they are expressing is with how much it costs to rent prison space elsewhere. At no point are they saying we need to be incarcerating fewer inmates, they just want to pay less per inmate that we outsource.

(more…)

The Sheriff versus the deputies

I continue to be surprised at how antagonistic this relationship has been.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia on Friday released a long-promised “Bill of Rights” for deputies under investigation by the department, but three deputies’ unions criticized the sheriff for not providing the same protections he enjoyed as a Houston police officer.

They insist Garcia reneged on a campaign pledge to quickly protect the rights of employees during internal investigations, one that helped him secure union support during his successful bid to unseat former Sheriff Tommy Thomas in 2008.

“The way cops look at it is, ‘tell me yes or no, not in between. Don’t lie to me,’ ” said Alberto Rivera, president of the Mexican American Sheriff’s Organization. “The calls I’ve got, my guys are saying this is real watered down. For me, its easy: give us the same thing HPD has. That’s where he’s from.”

The Harris County Deputies Organization characterized the six-page document as “vague, contradictory, misleading.”

“It’s kind of amazing. We’re over a year now (in discussions) and this is the best he can come up with,“ said HCDO president Robert Goerlitz. “Most of what he put out is already in state law, or things that we already have.”

I’ve uploaded a copy of the document, which I received as well, here. I don’t know enough about the particulars to evaluate the claims that both sides are making. As I said, I’m just surprised that this is where we are after a year of Sheriff Garcia being in office.

There’s a fix for that

As we know, Harris County has a budget shortfall of its own to deal with. So the fact that the Sheriff’s Office is spending more than it was allotted is drawing some scrutiny.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is projected to overspend its annual budget by $51 million, the third straight year it has blown past its planned expenditures by at least $40 million.

If the projections hold, the $423 million spent by the Sheriff’s Office in the year that ends Feb. 28 would be 14 percent more than Commissioners Court planned when it passed the county budget last year.

The numbers are getting a close look from county officials who have scheduled hearings for next week on what is expected to be $1.4 billion budget for fiscal year 2010-11.

“I would like our budget to reflect reality,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “I think that’s what people are waiting to hear from the sheriff this time is, ‘OK, why are we over so much?’”

[…]

About two-thirds of the sheriff’s budget goes to running the county jail. It currently houses 1,000 inmates in facilities built for about 9,400 prisoners. The strain has contributed to $34.4 million in overtime this year, as well as millions spent to house overflow prisoners in other counties and Louisiana.

There’s your answer, Ed. The good news is that unlike HPD, whose primary cost drivers have been salaries and pension commitments, solving this particular shortfall is straightforward: Stop locking up people who could instead be out on bail, and expand outpatient mental health services for inmates who would benefit from that. Commissioners Court has appointed a fancy jail czar in place who was tasked with Doing Something to reduce the inmate population, so it’s not like they don’t know what the problem is. Let’s get on with it already.

Of course, for some people, it’s easier and perhaps more natural to just play dumb and haul out the outrage:

“I have asked the budget director to explain to me how the sheriff can be $51 million over and we are expected to carry that by cutting the precincts’ budgets,” Precinct 4 Commissioner Jerry Eversole said.

Eversole said he fears the Sheriff’s Office overspending will come at the expense of maintenance of 2,700 miles of roads and thousands of acres of parks in his precinct.

“Why can’t I be $51 million over budget? That’s what I asked the budget director,” Eversole said. “I think those questions are going to be asked again in open court.”

Yo, Jerry. If you read the sidebar on this story, it says that last year the Sheriff’s Office spent $56 million more than was budgeted. Were you asking these questions then? Seems to me that if all of the people who have been responsible for this problem all along – that would include the Sheriff, the District Attorney, all of those lock-em-up judges, and Commissioners Court – had been doing a better job, we wouldn’t be in this position now.

County pays off last bill related to Ibarra brothers lawsuit

Merry Christmas.

Harris County Commissioners Court agreed [Tuesday] to pay the last of what has amounted to more than $4 million in bills related to a lawsuit brought by two men who said they were wrongfully arrested after one of them videotaped sheriff’s deputies during a drug raid.

The commissioners approved a settlement that calls for the county to pay a total of $163,100.57 in attorneys’ costs to two law firms.

Terry O’Rourke, first assistant county attorney, who briefed commissioners on the settlement in closed session, told them before their 5-0 vote in open session that it closes the books on the 2002 incident.

I can’t summarize this in one or two links, so just go here and browse away. May we never do anything like this again.

Harris County disputes federal criticism of its jails

This is interesting.

Harris County officials today delivered a 300-page response to the U. S. attorney general’s findings that the Harris County Jail was unconstitutional, saying the report was largely based on anecdotal accounts from inmates and incomplete data.

County Attorney Vince Ryan said his staff will deliver a voluminous response to the 24-page report issued in June by the U.S. Justice Department’s civil rights division, which cited an “alarming” number of deaths in the jail when it investigated the facility last year.

“At no time has the jail not met constitutional standards,” said Ryan. “Our criminal justice facilities are doing a great job of taking care of problems of people in jail.”

Ryan noted that since the investigators’ visit, county commissioners have given the jail millions in stimulus funds to computerize inmates’ medical records. He also cited the recent creation of a county Criminal Justice Coordinating Council to explore methods to not only reduce jail overcrowding, but also streamline the operation of the county’s criminal courts. (Read the federal report on the jail here.)

You can read Ryan’s full response to the DOJ here (large PDF). Couple things to note: One, as blogged before, the June report was based on inspections made last year. Given that the jails passed a surprise state inspection in July after having flunked in April, it’s reasonable to assume that things have indeed been getting better over there. Ryan asserts in his cover letter that other branches of the DOJ such as the US Marshall Service and the National Institute of Corrections evaluated the Harris County jails differently, and much more favorably, than the Civil Rights division; he also specifically disputes several of the Civil Rights division’s findings. And finally, as Ryan mentions in his press release, reproduced below, the DOJ is contemplating a lawsuit against Harris County; they had given a 45-day deadline to get our house in order, which by my calculations works out to today. We’ll see if this is enough to get them to reconsider.

(more…)

The exodus from the DA’s office

The Chron writes about disgruntlement in the DA’s office.

Harris County District Attorney Pat Lykos promised to clean house when she was elected in November and promptly fired seven senior prosecutors. Now other experienced prosecutors, including a member of Lykos’ upper echelon, are leaving, citing a lack of communication and a toxic work environment.

With career prosecutors leaving without being asked, some are worried Lykos is driving away those she’d hoped to keep, leaving the office hurting for experience, institutional memory and mentors for newer prosecutors.

Lykos said there is no problem. Employees leave jobs for a number of reasons, and space at the top gives rising stars room to advance.

“Turnover is normal and it gives younger, eager prosecutors upward mobility,” Lykos said.

Murray Newman, who used to be an assistant DA and who has been one of the biggest critics of Pat Lykos and her office around, hails the story and piles on to it. I obviously have no insider knowledge here, but in fairness it must be noted that there’s always some turmoil when there’s a change at the top of an office like the District Attorney. There’s been a certain amount of disgruntlement at the Sheriff’s office as well, with Robert Goerlitz, the Secretary/Treasurer of the Harris County Deputies Organization being a leading critic – see these two documents, which Goerlitz forwarded to Carl Whitmarsh’s listserv awhile ago, for an example. Having said that, there’s not been anything like the exodus from the HCSO’s office that there has been from the DA’s office. Even to an outsider like me, it seems clear that something different is going on there.

Speaking in political terms, I’d say this is mostly inside baseball until such time as a former employee announces an electoral challenge to Lykos, or current and former ADAs publicly back an opponent to Lykos, much as the deputies’ organizations supported Adrian Garcia over Tommy Thomas last year. Until then, it’s interesting but not really predictive of anything. The next election is a long way off, after all.

On a related note, I’d like to thank Murray for pointing me to the Fake Pat Lykos Twitter feed, and for reminding me again just what a goober HCRP Chair Jared Woodfill is. I guess he hasn’t paid much attention in all those doing it in the Facebook with the Twittering classes the local GOP is teaching.

Feds’ report on Harris County jails

Still a lot of people dying in the jails here, at least as of the last federal inspection.

Their experiences are detailed in a U.S. Department of Justice report, completed last week and obtained Monday by the Houston Chronicle, which found that conditions at the jail violate inmates’ constitutional rights. Justice officials have declined to release the report, but a jail spokesman last week discussed some of the findings.

The report also found that the downtown lockup, which houses some 11,000 people, has failed four of its last six state inspections and has come under scrutiny for poor medical care, overcrowding and inmates’ deaths.

[…]

The Justice Department issued a series of detailed recommendations for changes to policies and procedures at the jail, and officials said they expect to work with the Sheriff’s Office to implement them. If the changes don’t occur or are insufficient, the Justice Department can take legal action against Harris County.

The report is based on inspections of the jail in July and August and on the review of documents provided by the Sheriff’s Office, which runs the lockup. The report cites the jail for inadequate medical and mental health care and criticizes the Harris County Sheriff’s Office for jailers’ excessive use of force against inmates, noting the “Harris County Jail does not train staff that hogtying and chokeholds are dangerous, prohibited practices.”

Note the first sentence in that last paragraph. This report is based on an inspection done last year, when Tommy Thomas was still in charge. We can consider it the baseline against which new Sheriff Adrian Garcia will ultimately be judged. I have faith he’ll do a lot better – it’s hard to imagine doing much worse, after all. I presume there will be another inspection in the near future, which will hopefully give us a clearer picture of how things are now, and how they have improved. There are some positive early signs:

A spokesman for Sheriff Adrian Garcia, who oversees the jail, noted that the report is based largely on an inspection that occurred nearly a year ago, before he took office in January. (Read the full report here.)

“The report is based on a snapshot of what the jail was like then,” Keir Murray said. “Things are different now and they are going to continue to improve. The sheriff is committed to improving the jail.”

Murray outlined improvements made in each area the Justice Department cited, adding that the report does not reflect some of the changes.

The jail has started using peer review of medical and mental health care, using experts to review the work of jail staff to ensure inmates’ illnesses are detected and treated. Medical staff also must document all interactions with inmates and detail what follow-up care is necessary. Finally, even before Garcia took office, the Sheriff’s Office issued a new policy on when and how officers can use force against inmates.

The report does offer some praise for the Sheriff’s Office, particularly for its cooperation with the investigation. “We appreciate the assistance that they provided us and the candor of their responses,” it says. “Indeed, we were impressed by the level of professionalism exhibited by staff at all levels.”

Glad to hear it. We ought to know fairly soon if conditions really are getting better.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office has 45 days to convince federal officials it is making progress on protecting inmates’ rights at its troubled jail and avoid a lawsuit to force improvements.

Well, at least that’s a simple enough way to judge the effectiveness of Sheriff Garcia’s mitigation efforts – either there’s a lawsuit filed or there isn’t.

On Tuesday, county officials downplayed the findings and instead focused on changes made since federal investigators toured the jail last year.

“Actually, if you read the report, it is fairly positive,” County Judge Ed Emmett said. “It has some episodic events but it does not show a pattern of problems.”

Nice to know politics aren’t an obstacle to overcome. As I said, I have faith Sheriff Garcia will get the job done. He sure does have his work cut out for him, though.

UPDATE: Grits has more.

Garcia’s plan to fix the jails

Sheriff Adrian Garcia is off to Austin to explain how he’s going to fix problems with the Harris County jails.

Garcia, who took office in January, inherited a massive downtown detention system under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and under scrutiny for its overcrowding, as well as poor sanitation and access to medical treatment. Last month, the jail, which houses more than 10,000 prisoners in four buildings, added to its troubles with a failed state inspection.

It was the fourth time in six years the jail failed to meet state standards.

Inspectors with the state Commission on Jail Standards found problems that posed “life safety issues” to inmates. They cited broken intercoms, which could keep inmates from communicating with deputies in an emergency, unusable toilets and overcrowded holding cells.

Today, Garcia will detail for the jail commission plans to fix the facilities, including the repair of existing intercoms while the county installs a $5.3 million security and communications system that will replace the intercoms, a contract for which Commissioners Court approved Tuesday. Garcia also will outline a plan to better track maintenance requests while the Sheriff’s Department negotiates with another county department to assume more responsibility for upkeep of the jail.

“We found that we did have a large backlog of work orders over the last few months leading up to the inspection,” said Keir Murray, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman.

The county’s facilities and property management department oversees the contractors who maintain county buildings, an arrangement Garcia argues has stalled repairs. The Sheriff’s Office hopes to take over responsibility for jail maintenance but will try to track work orders in the meantime.

Stuff like this is a big part of the reason why Garcia was elected by such a large majority last fall. He’ll be judged by how well he does cleaning up this mess he inherited. (Getting rid of the bad actors is another key component of that.) I have no doubt he’ll be worlds better than his predecessor, but there’s a lot that needs to be done. I wish him the best of luck in doing so.

Having said that, I disagree with him about this.

Persistent problems at the Harris County Jail will cease only with the construction of a new facility, Sheriff Adrian Garcia said Thursday after negotiating with state officials to keep the downtown lockup running despite its failure of a recent inspection.

[…]

Garcia outlined short-term fixes but stressed that construction of a new building for a detention system that already holds more than 10,000 people will be inevitable. Two years ago, before Garcia took office, voters narrowly rejected a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail.

“Today is an indication of how pressing the need is,” Garcia said. “We are going to have to have a conversation about the future and make sure we don’t propose a jail that doesn’t meet the needs of the county.”

Garcia said he is open to all options for meeting demands, whether they come in the form of a downtown jail or another facility. He did not have a timeline for taking a proposal before the Commissioner’s Court or voters but said he was confident such a plan will get support.

Court members said they were open to discussions about a new jail, but only in conjunction with broader attempts to reduce the inmate population through pre-trial diversion and modified bonding policies.

“There are so many factors involved when you look at jail overcrowding that sometimes it is just too simple to say we need a new jail,” Commissioner Sylvia Garcia said.

The court has said it will not pursue a downtown jail plan unless voters approve the measure.

As you know, I agree with Commissioner Garcia on this. While I could be persuaded that we need a new building to replace the current facility because it is in such bad shape that it’s not cost-effective to repair it, I do not support adding more jail space until we’ve dealt with the overcrowding problems we have now.

Now, Sheriff Garcia told me in the first interview I did with him that he voted for that failed jail bond referendum in 2007, so his position is not a surprise. Fixing the overcrowding issue is something that will take cooperation from the judiciary and the District Attorney’s office, and we saw back in January that steps were being taken in that direction, which is very encouraging. I believe Sheriff Garcia will do the right thing, but I want to see concrete evidence of progress before I’m willing to talk about new jail construction. As with many of the issues bequeathed to him by Tommy Thomas, this can’t wait.

There’s always an excuse to not do it

Sorry, but this sounds like carping to me.

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has nearly tripled the number of investigators assigned to an expanded Office of Inspector General to handle what he described as a “tremendous” backlog of unresolved complaints against jailers and deputies stretching back two years.

The reorganization has drawn mixed reviews. The head of the main deputies’ union approves of the idea, but some rank-and-file officers are leery.

Garcia said the change is needed to reduce the backlog of 160 pending investigations he inherited when he took office in January. He said 30 of those cases since have been closed.

The sheriff also said the reorganization was aimed in part at assuring U.S. Department of Justice investigators reviewing the high number of deaths in county jails that the department is willing to police its own.

“Part of what caused the DOJ complaint was there appeared to be no attention given to issues that led to the confrontation between the public, the inmates and the employees,” Garcia said. “We want to make sure people understand we are working hard to protect the public.”

[…]

Commissioner Steve Radack complained the move will reduce public safety.

“I have a huge problem with that. If you’re going to arbitrarily say this person used to ride in a patrol car and now you put them inside the building in internal affairs, this does not meet muster with me,” said Radack, a former police officer and county constable. “This is the same guy who told you he’s going to put more boots on the ground, but what they’re doing is changing the boots and changing them into wingtips.”

[…]

Richard Newby, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, said it was unfair to employees to endure long waits while complaints are investigated.

“Something had to be done, and there are times you have to bite the bullet and do it,” he said. “We transferred bodies to take care of the problem.

“This is at the expense of all the departments — detention, patrol, the detective bureau — everybody got hit a little bit.”

Newby is right and Radack is wrong. This is a priority, and it’s one that cannot be met by hiring a bunch of new deputies to handle it. The OIG hasn’t been in existence for long, and hasn’t been staffed to investigate these long-standing problems. It is a matter of public safety – last I checked, the inmates in the jail were still members of the public, and they have a right to non-deadly living conditions. And frankly, this is one of the messes created by his predecessor that Garcia was elected to clean up. If Steve Radack has a problem with that, the person he should be complaining to is Tommy Thomas. Stace has more.

Red, white, blue, and hopefully back

I’m glad to see that the KUHT political program The Connection: Red, White, and Blue is on its way back to the airwaves after an unplanned hiatus followed by a bit of a kerfuffle. It fills a very useful niche in the local media landscape – as the story notes, it was the only place to see Adrian Garcia and Tommy Thomas go head-to-head last year – and is the sort of thing that public television should be doing. (And just so we’re clear, I think KUHT has been doing some excellent work, most notably with its “Houston Have Your Say” series.) It’s also the show where I made my local teevee debut, so there’s some sentimental value there as well. I look forward to its return, hopefully in time for some shows focusing on the big municipal elections we’ll be having this fall.

Harris County tackles jail overcrowding

Well, what do you know?

Harris County’s burgeoning jail population is expected to swell to 12,600 this spring, prompting newly elected officials to take a fresh look at ways to alleviate overcrowding, including releasing low-risk offenders.

The new sheriff, district attorney and eight new criminal district court judges will consider ideas championed for years by local lawmakers, defense lawyers and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.

The new Democratic judges, for example, have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Such bonds, better known as personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail.

[…]

The county’s criminal district judges voted earlier this month to devote one court to felony cases involving defendants diagnosed with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and severe depression.

The idea is to defer those defendants to treatment, rather than to repeatedly jail them for relatively minor crimes such as loitering or trespassing.

New Republican District Attorney Pat Lykos also hopes to launch a pilot project to divert nonviolent, mentally ill defendants with less severe diagnoses to a secure facility where they can receive medical care and counseling.

Major Mike Smith, who runs the jails for new Democratic Sheriff Adrian Garcia, said he has been overwhelmed with requests for meetings with judges, prosecutors and other officials who want to discuss ideas for reducing the inmate population.

“That’s the ultimate answer — to get some of these people out of the jail and into other locales or in the free world where they’re under monitored supervision or enhanced bonding,” Smith said.

It’s a beautiful thing to see every involved agency working on this in a positive way, rather than just demanding more money to deal with their actions. Elections really do have consequences.

In November 2007, voters defeated a $245 million bond referendum to build a 2,500-bed jail downtown. Commissioners Court considered putting a new, smaller request on last November’s ballot, but decided against it.

Smith said it would be naive to think the county will never need a new jail, given its booming population.

“But I also don’t think we can build our way out of the overcrowding issue,” he added.

We’ve pretty clearly demonstrated that. I’m just glad to see that we’ve now finally recognized it. I look forward to seeing what can and will be done about it. Grits has more.