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Positive alternatives to privatization and jail overcrowding in Harris County

Last week, we wrote about Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack's proposal to study privatization of Harris County's massive jail system.  Harris County already has more than 1,000 prisoners in private jails in Louisiana and east Texas. (According to statistics provided by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, the county currently ships 1027 prisoners out-of-county, including 575 males 27 females to CEC's Newton County Correctional Center, 33 females to a jail Epps, Louisiana and 392 males to a jail in LaSalle, Louisiana).

Harris County officials have repeatedly sited overcrowding to justify these transfers and proposals for further privatization.  However, a terrific op-ed in the Houston Chronicle (Marcia Johnson, Janis Bane, and Nicole DeBorde, "Let’s reduce jail crowding," April 30) on Saturday debunks some of these arguments and shows how the county could safely reduce its jailed population:

"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, such as:

 Revising the bail schedule and allowing for flexibility in determining who gets a bond;

 Utilizing the pretrial services risk assessment; and

 Increasing the use of personal bonds.

Use of the county jail during the pretrial stage should be limited to those who pose a threat to public safety. Harris County no longer has the resources to continue present pretrial practices."

The cost of the current out-of-county transfers is $17 million annually, according to the article. These recommendations would not only save taxpayers far more money than privatization and could reduce the strain on prisoner's families by making it more reasonable for them to visit loved ones. Grits for Breakfast, per usual, has more insight.