Jail of the Harris County Sheriff's Office, where a roll of toilet paper might just moonlight as your pillow.EXPAND
Jail of the Harris County Sheriff's Office, where a roll of toilet paper might just moonlight as your pillow.

The MacArthur Foundation Wants to Keep People Out of the Harris County Jail

Yesterday, the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council convened to high-five itself for winning $150,000 from the MacArthur Foundation. Exactly how it will administer the money remains to be seen.

The grant is part of a contest the MacArthur Foundation is holding to incentivize counties across the country to reduce their jail populations. The first round drew applications from nearly 200 counties, 20 of which were selected as recipients for $150,000 grants. The winners, which include giants Houston, New York, Philadelphia and L.A., have until the beginning of January to devise plans for tackling over-incarceration locally. In January, half of those jurisdictions will bring home the bacon: up to two million dollars annually each to be spent on criminal justice reform plans.

“It’s like a sporting event,” Harris County budget director Bill Jackson, who is also spokesman for the criminal justice council, told the Houston Press. “It’s one thing to do your homework and try to make an ‘A’ or a ‘B,’ but when there are other kids in the classroom, it brings a whole new level to it.”

Although the challenge is sure to generate useful data and possible solutions (the grant comes with consulting funded by the MacArthur Foundation and pressure to “demonstrate the availability of, and willingness to share, data across critical decision points”), the self-congratulatory nature of yesterday’s coordinating council meeting — along with Jackson’s comment — belies the painful truth, which is that the Harris County jail has been combating overcrowding for the past four decades, according to a report produced by the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

In 2008, unsafe and unclean crowding prompted a DOJ investigation of the jail, and in 2009, the ongoing investigation and a study conducted by the Harris County Commissioners Court, along with Virginia-based nonprofit Justice Management Institute, led to the creation of the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council.

Two years later, efforts had started to pay off: The number of inmates in lockup were no longer outrageously surpassing the jail’s actual housing capacity. But systemic problems continued.

In July of 2013, a study by the Department of Justice revealed that inmates at the largest of the jail's four locations were enduring sexual victimization at twice the national rate. In 2014, 14 inmates died in Harris's custody — that's four more than at New York City's Rikers Island in the same period, which holds almost twice as many people.

Today, the jail is still packed with folks who would probably be better off elsewhere. According to the jail's latest population report, 74 percent of its residents are pretrial defendants, many of whom were arrested on nonviolent or low-level crimes and are, at least legally speaking, still innocent. Then there are those in lockup because of drug addiction or untreated mental illness: Officials say more than a quarter of inmates there take medication for mental illness, making the Harris County jail the state's largest mental health facility. 

“The resources spent on treating inmates with mental illness and substance abuse problems are incredible, and diverting those inmates from the criminal justice system could lead to better outcomes — not only for the inmates, but also for taxpayers,” said Jay Jenkins, a policy attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, an advocacy group that helped Harris County assemble its MacArthur grant application.

“The jail can’t handle that many people, and it’s not a good environment for a mentally ill person,” added David James, a staff attorney at the Texas Civil Rights Project. “The county should be able to come up with something concrete in a measurable way to apply a solution.”

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