City and County Officials Celebrate New Jail

Celebrating the construction of a jail is not necessarily something that happens often, or ever. But today, Mayor Annise Parker, Sheriff Ron Hickman, and several other city and county officials will be doing so as they break ground on the new Joint Processing Center, which officials actually expect will do some good for taxpayers and law enforcement alike.

Instead of the Houston Police Department booking, screening and jailing inmates, then transferring them to the Harris County Jail only for inmates to have to go through the process all over again, the Joint Processing Center eliminates that redundancy so that everything is done in one place. The $100 million-dollar facility will hold 1,520 short-term, nonviolent inmates so more space is freed up in the county jail. It will have rooms for Harris County Pretrial Services interviews and investigator interviews; areas for DWI blood tests and medical and mental health screenings; and even a municipal court and two county probable cause courtrooms.

“It's taking an overwhelmingly complicated system and making it really simple,” said Ryan Sullivan, spokesman for the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

The JPC, which is slated for completion in December 2017, is expected to save HPD (and taxpayers) $4 million in operational expenses per year. The city will be tearing down its two city jails by January 2018, meaning 100 HPD officers will be freed up for more pressing field work. To build this new facility, voters approved two bonds in November 2013, and city officials claim they can pay off those bonds by using the cost savings from the JPC without putting too much of the burden on taxpayers.

Of all the facility's expected perks, Emmett said the one he finds most important is the designated "diversion stations" — spaces where officers or other staff will try to find a better place for someone than, well, jail. He's hoping that, in the long run, this will encourage law enforcement to stop jailing mentally ill people who would do better off in rehabilitative or hospital settings, not behind bars. “Rather than arresting them one more time and spending all that money in the criminal justice system, we can divert them over to the mental health system,” Emmett said. “I don't think you can ever do it enough. It makes the individuals' lives much better, and it makes society a better place.”

And also, again, saves taxpayer dollars. According to Sullivan, of the 900 people who revolved in and out of jail five times or more from 2011 to 2012, 538 of them had a diagnosed mental illness. It costs roughly $285 to $300 to house a mentally ill inmate per day, compared to $40 to $45 for those not needing any treatment.

But Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin said that, while JPC's improvements for law enforcement are great, until he sees some more concrete diversion plans, he's not convinced there is all too much to celebrate — at least not just yet. Before the criminal justice system can start getting hyped about diversion, he said, it will need to figure out where, exactly, it will be sending people.

“I think everybody in the system agrees we're not diverting enough people. I don't think you can find anybody who disagrees with that, but the question is how do you fix it,” he said. “There's nothing I've seen on paper that explains how we do that yet.”

For now, Bunin said, it's just a new building.

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