Let's Reduce the Harris County Jail Population
Updated: Apr 5
A recent Houston Chronicle article described Harris County’s struggle to reduce the current county jail population (see article dated 11-27-20, Harris County struggles to reduce jail population despite millions spent on challenge (msn.com). To date, officials advised they hired a Racial Disparity and Fairness Administrator, a Community Engagement Outreach Coordinator, implemented cite-and-release programs, implemented mental health diversion programs, and created a Reintegration Impact Court. In addition, the county has implemented misdemeanor bail reform and the Sheriff gives the maximum amount of good-time jail credit allowed by state law (3-for1). While these actions are commendable, they unfortunately will not lower the current county jail population. Why? The answer is in the jail data. All these criminal justice actions primarily impact LOW-LEVEL, MISDEMEANOR defendants and, quite frankly, that low-hanging fruit is almost all gone. On 12-5-20, the Harris County Jail count was 8,798, of which 8,463 (~96%) had some type of FELONY criminal case (see charts below). Of the relatively few misdemeanor defendants shown in the jail count, I suspect most were just going through the turnstile at the JPC (being booked and then released on bond under Rule 9).
To reduce the current county jail population, we now need to take action on the pre-trial FELONY cases. So, are police officers going to stop arresting felony offenders? No. Are judges going to start granting unsecured bonds to most felony defendants? No, with the possible exception of some SJF cases (punishable by 180 days – 2 years). Besides the serious nature of most felony cases, felony defendants usually have criminal histories, and over 1,100 HCJ felony defendants currently have parole violation (BOPP) holds. The reality is, in the interest of public safety, most felony defendants currently incarcerated in the Harris County Jail will remain there until their case is adjudicated. Unfortunately, for the reasons mentioned in the article, the Criminal District Courts have a huge backlog of cases. In order to reduce the county jail population, the current backlog in adjudicating felony cases must be resolved. So, how do we address the issue? STEP 1: Identify all the pre-trial felony defendants incarcerated in the jail, their case type/status, how long the case has been pending, and the assigned court. STEP 2: The District Attorney’s Office (DAO), the Public Defender’s Office (PDO), and the District Court Judges all agree to expedite these jail cases (barring unique, exigent circumstances). STEP 3: The District Judges re-examine all jail SJF cases for a possible PTRB. STEP 4: Since the vast majority of cases are adjudicated by use of plea bargains, the D.A.’s Office should be allowed to hire staff to focus exclusively on these jail cases. The DAO team would be tasked to get these felony jail cases adjudicated as quickly as possible, either through proactive plea bargains or by requesting expedited trial dates. The DAO team should start by examining all the SJF and non-violent cases. Any SJF jail cases more than 180 days old could be a good candidate for a "time-served" plea bargain. STEP 5: The District Courts create and implement a staff/space/resources plan to facilitate scheduling and conducting more trials for the jail cases. Everybody knows, nothing achieves a plea bargain agreement faster than an approaching trial date. STEP 6: Modify the appointed defense attorney fee schedule to incentivize disposition of jail cases.
If the DAO agrees to lead a joint city/county effort to safely address the jail crowding issue, local officials MUST publicly support her efforts. If this initiative fails, the Sheriff may soon have to start out-sourcing inmates to contract jail facilities again (at taxpayer expense). In addition, allowing pre-trial defendants to stack up in the county jail is an invitation for federal court intervention. If the felony case backlog and resulting jail crowding problem isn’t resolved by local officials, a federal judge may get involved and mandate radical, expensive actions. Time is short. Now is the time for local leadership to take decisive action. Let’s bite the bullet and get this issue under control ourselves before it is too late.
A final thought: In 2019, the population of Harris County was approximately 4.71 million residents, so a jail population of 8,798 represents less than .19% of the populace. When you back out the juveniles, our ratio is still going to be comparable to other major counties/cities. Since ~96% of the county jail population currently has some form of felony case, the jail crowding problem is not being caused by frivolous arrests or an unusually high incarceration rate. It might just be time for everyone to recognize that, given the high growth rate of Harris County over the past 15 years, our "hardcore" county jail population was bound to grow as well. After all the bail reform actions, diversion programs, and alternatives to jail, eventually we get down to the hardcore criminal offenders who definitely need to stay in jail. Public safety must continue to be one of our highest priorities.
UPDATE: Jail Cases by Assigned Court - As of 12-8-20
UPDATE: As of 4-3-21, the HCJ population is down to 8,422. The recent reduction is mostly attributable to an improvement in case adjudication in the District Courts. The in-custody, pre-trial felony docket backlog is now down to 7,858. To all the county criminal justice agencies, GREAT JOB!