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Drug Treatment Vouchers - Another way to Reduce the Harris County Jail Population

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

In my 12-8-20 post entitled, “Lets Reduce the Harris County Jail Population”, I recommended (among other things) that the DA’s Office offer time-served plea bargain deals, or dismissal, on pending State Jail Felony (SJF) cases if the defendant had been incarcerated longer than 180 days. Since SJF cases are punishable by 180 days to 2 years in jail, those pre-trial defendants had already served the minimum amount of time for a SJF case. Given COVID-19 concerns and the crowded conditions inside the county jail, I now believe the DA’s Office should consider these actions for SJF defendants incarcerated for more than 90 days. As of 2-3-21, there were 646 people in the Harris County Jail on a SJF case (see chart below).

While no official wants to look “soft on crime”, it is important to note the majority of SJF cases are for drug possession. I believe Harris County citizens would agree that housing people in the county jail for drug possession doesn’t solve the underlying problem (drug addiction). To that end, the County should offer each applicable SJF defendant being released a FREE drug treatment voucher eligible to be redeemed at County-approved outpatient facilities. This voluntary treatment initiative would provide at-risk people with an opportunity to break their drug addiction and, potentially, save their own lives (e.g. fewer drug overdoses, hospital visits). This initiative would also be a cost-effective investment for Harris County taxpayers. If the voucher is thrown away, it cost taxpayers nothing. If the voucher is redeemed, the addict may be rehabilitated and break the cycle of incarceration, thus freeing up an assortment of local criminal justice resources (e.g. police officers, the courts, jail space). Even a small percentage of success stories would justify the cost of the vouchers. If deemed necessary, the voucher program could even include free Metro bus passes to help ensure people are able to get to/from their drug treatment facility.

When this initiative is launched, County officials should inform the public that the county jail population is being reduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and, at the same time, to help cure the underlying cause of most SJF crimes (drug addiction). Coupled with our other Re-entry programs, this drug treatment initiative could make a significant impact in reducing recidivism and lowering our local crime rate. If explained in those terms, I think the community would support these actions. Remember, Albert Einstein said the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Let’s do the right thing and try something new this time.

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