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Letter from Lawmakers Asks for Crack Down on Houston Jail

Nov 4th, 2011 | Category: Harris County, Lead Article

Houston Sheriff Garcia and other Harris County officials showed up at the quarterly meeting of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards in early November to ask for more than 700 variance beds– beds that allow them to keep more inmates because of special needs and circumstances. Problem is, this situation has been going on for years. Tina Tran, chief of staff for Senator Rodney Ellis, read a letter from the Senator and Representative Garnet Coleman. Read that letter and another from the renowned criminal justice expert Michele Deitch explore the issue of the state granting variances to the Harris County Jail. More importantly, both letters demanded that the Jail Commission stop the practice now. But on Thursday,  TCJS commissioners voted to once more grant those beds to Harris County for another 6 months. Read the letters below.

November 3, 2011

Re: Harris County’s Application for Variance Beds

Dear Judge Klaeger and Commissioners,

We are writing to express our concern over the use of variance beds in county jail facilities.  While

we understand that variance beds were, at one time, a necessary band-aid to avoid overcrowding and

lawsuits at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), presently variance beds can serve as a

hindrance to the development of long-term solutions to system-wide issues.  Therefore, we urge the

Texas Commission on Jail Standards (the Commission) to cancel Harris County’s remaining 720

variance beds.

 

Furthermore, we strongly believe that if the Commission approves Harris County’s request of a

variance for its jail population, that the variance should be for a limited purpose, and that future

variances be contingent on county implementation of reforms to address its jail population.

Recognizing the need for effective reforms to reduce the overall jail population, the Commission

adopted a rule effective in September 2010, which states that the application for a variance shall

include “utilization of alternatives to incarceration, including diversion initiatives and reentry efforts

to reduce recidivism.”i  We agree with position of the Commission.  Variances should not be used as

a safety valve for counties that have chosen not to utilize numerous, effective solutions that can be

used to not only reduce jail population and eliminate the need for variances, but increase public

safety through more effective and efficient crime reduction strategies.

 

In 2009, the Justice Management Institute released Phase I of their report entitled the “Harris

County Criminal Justice Improvement Project” (JMI report).  The JMI report found that Harris

County had core issues that were causing its jail overcrowding, but also had several readily available

tools at their disposal for reducing that population.  For instance, the JMI report found that there

was “Too much reliance on jail as the primary (and often sole) resource for handling persons whose

law-breaking is basically a result of substance abuse and mental illness.”  Currently, the county still

lacks the capacity to provide good quality mental health services outside the confines of the jail for

persons who fall into a broad category of “mentally ill chronic minor offenders.”  As a result,

approximately 22 percent of inmates in the jail have some type of mental health problem, making

Harris County Jail the largest mental health facility in the state of Texas.  About 90 percent of the

inmates with mental health problems had previously been in jail, reflecting a “recycling” of many

offenders.

Furthermore, the JMI report also found that the severe underutilization of personal recognizance

(PR) bonds and other pre-trial alternatives resulted in large numbers of individuals staying in the jail

awaiting trial because they are unable to post bond.  For example, through July of FY2010-2011, 5.5

percent of all defendants arrested were released on PR bonds in Harris County.  Whereas, during the

same time period, Bexar County was able to release 19.3 percent of all defendants arrested.ii  If

Bexar County can achieve such high rates of PR bonds, so can Harris County.

Harris County deserves credit for taking some initial steps to address some of these problems since

the JMI report was published.  The jail population has gone from 11,303 in February 2009 to an

average daily population of 9,915 as of October 2011.  Also, the Harris County Criminal Justice

Coordinating Council has been established to provide system oversight and planning.  As a result of

the various workgroups established by the Council to look at issues and implement policies: trace

drug cases are no longer charged as felonies under the leadership of District Attorney Pat Lykos, a

three-for-one good time policy is being gradually implemented in the county jail, and some courts

are reevaluating the way state jail felonies are handled, as well as other initiatives.  These are all

commendable achievements.

 

Despite the progress made, however, many serious problems persist, while many readily available

solutions to those problems–many of which were outlined in detail in the JMI report–have not been

utilized.  The refusal to take advantage of available options that are proven to not only reduce jail

overcrowding, but also enhance public safety and save taxpayer dollars should not qualify as

justification for this or future variance requests.

 

It is for these reasons that we urge that the Commission to cancel Harris County’s remaining 720

variance beds.

Thank you for your time and consideration, and please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any

questions or concerns.

Sincerely,

Senator Rodney Ellis                                                                Representative Garnet Coleman

 

 

 

37 TEX. ADMIN. CODE § 299.3(8), pertaining to variance procedure rules.

ii

“PR Bond Stats-Combined_10212011.xls,” compiled by the Texas Office of Court Administration.

 

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