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Harris County Making Wrong Decision to Deal with Inmate 'Surge'

The Houston Chronicle reports that Harris County is sending several hundred jail detainees to a Louisiana private prison operated by Emerald Companies. The county jail has been plagued for years with chronic overcrowding problems and has regularly been de-certified by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) as result.

Historically, Harris County shifts the blame to other agencies and officials for its overcrowding problems. For example, Commissioner Steve Radack continues to argue that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) does not pick up "paper-ready" prisoners within the 45 days that they should.

Some background: The Texas Commission on Jail Standards defines "paper-ready" inmates as an inmate awaiting transfer to a state prison following a conviction of a felony or revocation of probation, parole or release on mandatory supervision and for whom all paperwork and processing required under Section 8(a), Article 42.09, Code of Criminal Procedure is completed.

Yet, according to TCJS, on June 1st (the last time statistics are available), only 136 inmates detained in all of Texas' county jails were classified as TDCJ paper-ready and past the 45-day mark. On that same day, Harris County incarcerated more than 200 detainees beyond their current capacity levels.

Stakeholders in Harris County could implement decisions today that would address overcrowding with and not require contracting with private prison companies.

The decisions of various stakeholders that comprise the Harris County criminal justice system contribute to jail overcrowding. The jail represents the hub of the county’s criminal justice system where law enforcement, the courts, and corrections officials interface. Two factors determine the county jail population: the number of intakes and the length of confinement. In order to reduce crowding, Harris County officials should:

  1. Improve data collection to use in data-guided decision making
  2. Encouraging the use of personal bonds to divert low-risk defendants
  3. Develop effective policies and practices to enable criminal justice decision makers to use alternatives to incarceration.

Harris County officials, starting with the Commissioners Court, the Sheriff, and the District Attorney must decide that enough is enough and identify solutions that will address chronic overcrowding and implement them.

Moving jail detainees out of Texas will make it difficult for these individuals to eventually reintegrate into society because their ability to maintain ties with the community is weakened. As a result, Harris County's entire criminal justice system will be compromised, and we'll all wind up paying down the road.

PDF icon TCJS June 1st pop summary.pdf10.5 KB
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