In an era when locking fewer people up and spending less on jails seems to make sense and is rapidly becoming en vogue, Harris County was increasing its spending and putting more folks behind bars than nearly any other populous county in the country, according to a recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust.
The study, Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Costs, announced that overall, the average daily local jail populations in large jurisdictions decreased 2.3 percent in 2009, after rising 30 percent from 1999 to 2008.
However, that was not the story for Harris County.
According to Pew, the jail population here grew 46 percent from 1999 to 2009, ranking Harris County third in inmate growth, behind Philadelphia at 49 percent, which tied with the Pittsburgh area. By contrast, LA decreased its jail population by 6 percent and New York City decreased its number of inmates by 24 percent.
Another place where Harris County was lagging behind the pack, according to the study, is spending less money on its jails. From 1999 to 2009, Harris County increased its spending by 34 percent, again ranking third, albeit a distant third. No one could touch Maricopa County, around Phoenix, which increased its spending by 106 percent, and Philly jacked up its spending by 52 percent.
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Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, says the stats in the study are correct but draws attention to the period covered, which is almost entirely before Garcia's term began. Since then, he notes, jail population and jail spending has decreased.
Counties around Chicago, Atlanta and Detroit increased spending by 12 percent or less during the 10-year time frame, and areas around Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Boston also increased spending less than Harris County.
"The big takeaway," the study's author, Claire Shubik-Richards tells Hair Balls, "is that you can look at existing policies and have an impact on your jail spending and jail population while maintaining public safety. What's required is a political consensus to do it and to do it thoughtfully."
All of which, according to the Pew study's data, is being done by many other large counties better than Harris County.