Sheriff Ed Gonzalez Sounds the Alarm - County Jail Population Continues to Rise
Updated: Apr 21
As described in the Houston Chronicle article yesterday (1/13/21 - https://www.houstonchronicle.com/news/houston-texas/houston/article/Federal-judge-to-address-sheriff-s-concerns-15865333.php), the Harris County Jail (HCJ) is almost out of usable bed space. This morning (1-14-21), the HCJ inmate count was 9,087. While the HCJ currently has 10,566 beds, 1,072 of those beds are at the 1307 Baker Street facility and can only be used for minimum-security inmates. Given the current breakdown of the HCJ population (96% have some form of felony case), I suspect there aren’t many healthy, minimum-security inmates in the HCJ that can be housed at 1307 Baker Street. Given that constraint, the number of HCJ beds that can actually be utilized is closer to 9,494 (10,566 – 1,072 = 9,494). Even that number is misleadingly high due to other bed usage constraints, such as classification factors (e.g. gender, keep separates, LOS), numerous special purpose cellblocks (e.g. MHU, Medical, PREA, Admin. Separation, Education, Re-Entry, Trustee) and cell maintenance issues. Of course, COVID-related cellblock quarantines further hamstring bed usage. The only good news is that today’s HCJ population (9,087) includes several hundred people being processed at the JPC (they aren’t actually using a bed). Still, given all the constraints, there isn’t much “usable” bed space left in the HCJ.
To his credit, Sheriff Gonzalez has been proactive on this issue and, according to the Chronicle article, continues to meet with stakeholders to identify options and seek solutions. Unfortunately, the root cause of the jail crowding problem is beyond the Sheriff's control, as felony cases continue to stack up in the Criminal District Courts. If this situation continues, the Sheriff will soon be forced to take one or more undesirable actions: (1) Outsource inmates again (at taxpayer expense), (2) Seek a TCJS variance to deploy temporary beds in the county jail again (never advisable, especially now given COVID-19 concerns), or (3) Implement large-scale, supervisor approved Classification LOS overrides in order to open and utilize those bunks at the 1307 Baker Street facility (not advisable due to safety, security, and staffing shortage concerns). Given those limited options, the Sheriff will probably be forced to out-source inmates again, starting with TDCJ-ready inmates.
Finding a jail bed for HCJ inmates is the immediate problem. Still, Harris County can NOT continue to allow pre-trial, felony defendants to stack up in the county jail. I brought this topic up five weeks ago (see my post entitled, “Let’s Reduce the Harris County Jail Population”) and I strongly encourage local officials to consider the suggestions I proposed to help reduce the jail population. I warned a federal judge might get involved if we failed to act. Based on the Houston Chronicle article, it looks like our time has almost run out.
UPDATE: As of 4-3-21, the HCJ inmate population is down to 8,422. The 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!