In Texas, everything is big—but that’s not always something to boast about. For example, the Harris County Jail, which houses about 9,000 inmates daily, is the third-largest jail system in the nation.
Prisons and jails are different. Prisons are state-level facilities for felony offenders who have been convicted. Jails are county-level facilities that hold sentenced misdemeanor offenders, and also—importantly—people who are awaiting trial after an arrest (or some other disposition of their case). This second group of individuals generally consists of those who have not been convicted of a crime.
Indeed jails house many people who may never be convicted of a crime. They also house many people who will be convicted, but who will ultimately receive probation or some other form of community supervision, such as mandatory drug court because it is determined that the underlying crime does not require incapacitation.
The cost of housing each one of these jail inmates for one day is $59.00. Thus, each day, around half a million dollars is being spent to jail such individuals in Harris County.
The pretrial incarceration of those who do not pose a high risk of committing a serious crime is counterproductive for public safety. A person who spends nearly a month in jail is likely to be out of a job upon release—and unemployment is a major risk factor for re-offending (or offending for the first time, if the individual was not guilty in the first place).
Harris County, therefore, needs to find a way to use jails less.
Fundamentally, this is a matter of distinguishing between those individuals who pose a high risk of committing a serious crime if released prior to trial from those who pose a low risk.
In the past, drawing such distinctions was difficult because counties had no actual method other than the “gut feeling” of law enforcement authorities.
Increasingly, however, that is changing.
Some states, like Kentucky, are developing pretrial risk assessment instruments that can be used to make sound determinations about who needs to be in jail and who does not.
The Kentucky instrument, which was implemented in July of 2013, has shown promising results. Fewer Kentuckians are in jail, taxpayers have saved $30-$40 million, and crime rates—which had been falling for years—are continuing their decline. All counties in Texas—including Harris—should be studying Kentucky’s success closely.
Another way to reduce the jail population and produce better public safety results is to identify those individuals who are mentally ill and to place them in treatment settings rather than behind bars.
Harris County’s jail is the biggest mental health facility in the state. It treats more psychiatric patients than all the public mental health hospitals in Texas put together.
A jail, however, is not suited to provide such care. Most people in law enforcement realize this, and would welcome the legal authority to take an offender straight to a hospital or crisis center rather than to a jail for booking and confinement.
On this score, Harris County is enviably ahead of most counties in Texas. In 2013, the legislature, under the leadership of Senators Joan Huffman and John Whitmire, authorized a jail diversion program in Harris County that—along with the highly successful 24-hour crisis center and case management system in Bexar County—could become a model for other jurisdictions.
Additionally, mental health courts are a proven model for holding these offenders accountable for complying with their treatment and probation conditions. Creating an additional mental health court in Harris County would expand on the success of this collaborative, problem-solving model.
Finally, it is sensible to use more citations, rather than arrests, when dealing with certain law-breakers. Ignoring citations would result in an arrest warrant, just like ignoring traffic tickets. The Texas Legislature actually authorized this procedure for certain misdemeanors in 2007, but it is underutilized.
Florida is achieving great success with civil citations in cases such as low-level shoplifting where the individual must pay restitution and perform community service to avoid ultimately being convicted and jailed.
In the last three years, crime in Texas has declined at the same time that the state has closed three prisons. Texas has earned national plaudits for these policies that improve the back door of the criminal justice system, but we must also fix the front door. The biggest county in the state, Harris, is the place to start.
Originally published in the Houston Chronicle.