Thirteen Harris County legislators have asked the Texas Commission on Jail Standards to think carefully before approving a request from the Harris County Sheriff's Office to increase the number of beds at the county jail. The request comes just two months after the Harris County Jail was so crowded the sheriff delayed inmate transfers.
In a letter on Tuesday, the group of three senators and ten representatives expressed concern that adding new beds would only worsen overcrowding in the jail, the state's largest. Instead, the lawmakers urged the commission and Harris County officials to look for ways to divert would-be inmates from jail.
Requests for more beds, they argue, "are unnecessary when there are numerous, effective solutions that can be implemented not only to reduce jail population and eliminate the need for variances, but also increase public safety through more effective and efficient crime reduction strategies."
According to an October report of statewide jail populations compiled by the commission, the Harris County Jail had 9,004 inmates, accounting for 89 percent of the facility's capacity. More than two-thirds were pretrial inmates who had yet to be convicted on the charges that landed them in jail. A total of 371 inmates were imprisoned on mere misdemeanor charges — defined in Texas as crimes punishable by a maximum of one year in prison.
The Harris County Sheriff's Office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon. We will update this story when it does.
Overcrowding has long been a problem at the Harris County Jail. Back in 2007, the sheriff had to ship inmates to Louisiana. Prosecutors were able to lower that number through the use of diversion programs, but it flared up again last year, when Sheriff Ron Hickman was forced to ship more than 100 inmates to jails in other Texas counties.
Local legislators may be worried about returning to those days when the jail's population exceeded 11,000 inmates. Their letter to the state argues that Harris County still hasn't learned the lessons of a 2009 independent report that found two major causes of overcrowding at the facility: the excessive jailing of drug possession suspects and the reliance on jail as the way to deal with substance abusers and the mentally ill.
"At the very least, County leadership must consider implementing front-end diversion programs," the letter states, as well as "evidence-based programs that divert drug use arrestees and the mentally ill."
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In fact, state law requires counties requesting more beds in their jails to detail efforts to lower the amount of suspects in custody — a requirement legislators said the Harris County Sheriff's Office has yet to meet. The lawmakers also urged reform of the county's bail system, which the Houston Press has covered extensively and is the subject of a federal lawsuit.
The letter was signed by Senators Rodney Ellis, John Whitmire and Sylvia Garcia; and Representatives Garnet Coleman, Senfronia Thompson, Gene Wu, Jessica Farar, Borris Miles, Armando Walle, Hubert Vo, Ana Hernandez, Alma Allen and Carol Alvarado.
The jail standards commission will take up Harris County's request for more beds at its meeting in Austin on Thursday. We'll update this story if the commission arrives at a decision.