Using Harris Jails Less and Seeing Public Safety Improve More

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.

In Harris County, there are about 6,000 offenders of this sort, and an average Harris County inmate spends nearly one month in jail.

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.


BBC Radio: Why Texas is Closing Prisons in Favor of Rehab

A few weeks ago, the BBC sent former David Cameron speechwriter Danny Kruger to Texas to look into the successes of that state’s criminal justice reforms. The first stop on his tour was our Right on Crime office at the Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin. Kruger spoke to Right on Crime policy director Marc Levin as well as senior fellow Jerry Madden. In an article accompanying the half-hour broadcast (embedded below), Kruger described the evolution of of the conservative criminal justice reform movement, correctly identifying that it “goes way beyond the desire to save money”:

Consistent with the straightforward Texan manner, [in 2007,] the Congressional Republicans did not attempt to tackle what in Britain are known as “the causes of crime” – the socio-economic factors that make people more disposed to offend. Instead, they focused on the individual criminal, and his or her personal choices. Here, they believe, moral clarity and generosity are what’s needed.

Though fiscal conservatism may have got the ball rolling, what I saw in Texas – spending time in court and speaking to offenders, prison guards, non-profit staff and volunteers – goes way beyond the desire to save money.

Continue reading at the BBC, and listen to the whole show below.


Breitbart Texas: Reform Efforts Should Be Judged by Success Rate and Recidivism, Not Simply Economics

Breitbart Texas covers the discussion on criminal justice reform at this year’s TribFest in Austin, Texas, which featured Right on Crime Senior Policy Analyst Vikrant Reddy. According to the article, Reddy”praised the legislature for using offender outcomes to judge the success of their programs, instead of solely looking at budget savings. Improvements in recidivism rates, restitution to victims, education advancements by offenders, and successful completion of drug and behavioral treatment all factored into improved public safety beyond any budget line.”

AUSTIN, Texas — Texas has made great progress in the area of criminal justice reform, but there is still a long way to go. That was the consensus message from a panel discussion earlier last month at the University of Texas at Austin, as reform advocates from the left and right, a state representative, and a man incarcerated for nearly twenty five years for a crime he did not commit, shared their thoughts with an audience of journalists, professors, students, and activists interested in criminal justice reform at the Texas Tribune’s annual Texas Tribune Festival.

The panel, titled “What’s Next for Criminal Justice Reform?” was moderated by Bill Keller, editor-in-chief of The Marshall Project, a non-profit news website that focuses on criminal justice issues. Panelists included  Vikrant Reddy, senior policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy FoundationMichael Morton, who was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife and spent nearly 25 years in prison before being exonerated in 2011, State Representative James White (R-Woodville), Vice-Chairman of the House Corrections Committee, and Ana Yáñez-Correa, Executive Director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Continue reading at Breitbart Texas.


Giving Kids Adult Records: Cohen and Fowler in the Dallas Morning News

The Dallas Morning News published a piece by Right on Crime policy analyst Derek Cohen and Deborah Fowler, deputy director for Texas Appleseed. They write that, despite large criminal justice reform waves sweeping across Texas, there is still one area where government over reach and inefficiency is apparent. Truancy, previously a minor misbehavior dealt with by parents and teachers, is today a crime that can earn a child an adult record. This process hurts the child, damages families, and has stunts economic growth. Handing out criminal records for behavior like truancy lowers the likelihood of the child getting a job and raises the likelihood of future welfare support.

Texas is one of only two states (the other is Wyoming) that employ the criminal justice system to punish truancy. The Texas Education Code — the body of law that regulates the activity of all educational institutions in the state — empowers school districts to file a criminal complaint against a child as young as 10 who has missed three days of school. After 10 missed days within a six-month period, however, the district’s discretion is removed and it is required to file against the child.

This is known as “Failure to Attend School,” or FTAS, a Class C misdemeanor that can carry up to $500 in fines and leave an indelible mark on the child’s criminal record. These fines are levied all too often on low-income families who don’t have the savings to pay them. If a child or parent is unable to pay the $500, or if the child misses one more day after adjudication, he or she can face jail time for the violation of a valid court order. In addition to the burden this places on families, the criminalization of truancy is a drain on limited court resources.

In addition, NBC News affiliate KXAN-Austin interviewed Cohen on the issue of truancy in Texas schools. Watch the clip below.




Dallas Plans to Take Advantage of the 2007 Cite and Summons Law

dallas_co_jailNext year, the Dallas Police Department and county officials will make another attempt at reducing the amount of time an officer will spend on nonviolent misdemeanor suspects by taking advantage of the 2007 cite-and-summons law. The law was written by former Rep. and Right on Crime Fellow, Jerry Madden, and passed with bipartisan support and backing from both conservative and liberal criminal justice advocates.

Successful roll-out in Dallas — and a similar new program in Houston — would give criminal justice reformers across the political spectrum added momentum for next year’s lawmaking session. Priority goals for the left-right Texas Smart on Crime Coalition include further refinement of Texas’ drug laws, with emphasis on keeping the repercussions minor for minor offenses.

Continue reading at The Dallas Morning News