Déjà Vu at the Montgomery County Jail

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Those who don't learn from the past are doomed to repeat it. As Montgomery County officials consider spending $200 million on expanding their jail, let's hope they keep the old maxim in mind.

Capt. David Moore, Montgomery County's jail administrator, says he struggles every week to keep the jail's inmate count below its 1,253-bed capacity. In recent months, he says, he's had to ship dozens of inmates off to jails in neighboring counties. The lockup is only one of five in the state currently rated as being "at risk" for overcrowding by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

County officials project that in 20, years they'll need space for at least 1,000 more inmates than they currently have room for. So last week Montgomery County commissioners began considering proposals to greatly expand the jail or build a new one.

If this all sounds familiar, it should.

Next door to Montgomery County's existing jail is the Joe Corley Detention Center, which commissioners built in 2008 to someday handle the county's inmate overflow. To build the $45 million facility, commissioners formed a nonprofit, the almost Orwellian-sounding "Montgomery County Jail Financing Corporation," and got approval from the IRS to issue tax-exempt bonds to fund the lockup. The understanding was that at the start, federal prisoners -- some from the U.S. Marshal's Office, others from Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- would occupy some 70 percent of the beds, leaving the rest for local overflow.

IRS approval for the tax-exempt bonds, however, was contingent upon Montgomery County sending inmates to the new jail to occupy a growing number of beds each year. And by 2012, Montgomery County was housing zero local inmates in the Joe Corley Detention Center.

Rather than risk losing tax-exempt status for the $45 million in bonds issued to build the jail, which would have had major tax implications for the county, commissioners last year sold the Joe Corley Detention Center to the private prison corporation The GEO Group, which continues to house federal prisoners for the Marshal's Service and ICE at the facility. It's also worth noting that the Montgomery County Attorney now claims a developer, a former county commissioner and a retired county auditor conspired to bilk an extra $13 million out of the county during the jail construction. (Hat-tip to criminal justice blogger/guru Scott Henson, who's been following this circus since day one.)

Now Montgomery County says it needs a new jail. But why is overcrowding a problem now, when it wasn't two years ago?

Montgomery County Commissioner James Noack held a meeting this week with court, jail and DA's office officials hoping to get at the root causes for the county's current predicament. The main problem, he says, is the amount of pre-trial defendants -- who are presumably innocent until proven guilty -- held in lockup.

According to the most recent numbers out of TCJS, 68 percent of those held in the Montgomery County jail are pretrial inmates. Statewide, 58 percent of county jail inmates are pretrial defendants. In Harris County, that number is 61 percent. In San Antonio, where county commissioners have made a concerted effort at pretrial diversion (like expanding specialty mental health and drug treatment courts), only 29 * about 57 percent of county jail inmates are pretrial defendants.

Phil Grant, Montgomery County's first assistant district attorney, says the shuttering of the Sam Houston State University regional crime lab in 2012 exacerbated the county's jail woes. For example, the turnaround for blood analysis on felony DWI cases used to take about a week. Now, blood analysis and toxicology tests are done by the state DPS crime lab, which takes about six months, he says.

That means cases take much longer to clear. And if the defendants can't afford bail, they clog the jail for months.

Nate Jensen, the county's director of court administration, says recent years have seen an explosion in arrests and case filings as the local population grows. "Most agencies have more boots on the ground now," he said. "And if you have more police, you're going to have more instances where people...well, get caught." In 2004, about 4,000 felony cases were filed. Last year, the Montgomery County DA's office filed about 5,700.

Grant with the DA's office says that while the county is considering sending blood and toxicology tests to a private lab to save time and money in the short run, "We eventually are going to need some more jail space...I think this is all a delay versus a permanent solution."

Commissioner Noack, on the other hand, insists the county needs to "proceed cautiously" before committing to a new jail. "I don't exactly have the appetite to spend $200 million on a jail right now."

And the county's $200 million estimate doesn't even include the cost for a new 30-acre plot officials would have to acquire should they choose to build a new jail. They can't exactly just build next door. That space is, well, occupied.

*Correction August 26: As Henson at Grits points out, we somehow botched the math on that Bexar County pretrial number. That number is about 57 percent, not in the high 20s, as we erroneously reported.

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