Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Staggering dockets won't relieve jail overcrowding

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has taken it upon himself to try to resolve the county's long-term problem of jail overcrowding. It's too bad that it won't solve a thing.

There are 22 district (felony) criminal courts and 15 county courts-at-law (misdemeanor) in the Harris County Criminal (In)justice Center. There is a "holdover" cell in each courtroom that is supposed to hold no more than 19 inmates. As they would say across the pond, that guideline is honored more in the breach than in the observance.

There is a giant holding cell in the tunnel between the county jail and the courthouse that can hold roughly 250 inmates. Now do the math. Thirty-seven courts with 19 inmates is a bit more than 250. The overflow inmates are lined up in the tunnel where they wait.

What is one to do?

Sheriff Garcia decided to stagger the times he has inmates delivered to courtrooms.This means that an attorney may walk into a courtroom and have no idea when his client might be brought over.

The problem with Sheriff Garcia's plan to alleviate overcrowding is that it doesn't. His plan only treats the symptoms, not the disease.

The way to reduce jail overcrowding in Harris County is to find a way to get those people in jail awaiting trial out of jail. Every person brought into the county jail is innocent unless proven guilty. To force someone to stay behind bars due to the arbitrariness of the county's bail schedule is a crime.

The first blog post I wrote dealt with the need to increase the number of personal bonds issued. Every person without a prior criminal record arrested for a non-violent offense should be released with a personal bond. The only reason to keep them behind bars is to coerce a plea out of them. Just wave that offer of time served in front of their face and they will gladly plead guilty to something they didn't do just to get out of that hellhole.

The other way to reduce the jail population in Harris County is to issue citations and summonses for non-violent misdemeanor drug possession cases. Confiscate the goods, issue the person a ticket along with a summons ordering them to appear in court on a certain day at a certain time under threat of arrest.

We need to do away with this notion that anyone charged with domestic assault must be held without bail until such time as he can see a magistrate so a temporary protective order can be issued. If we can find judges who are more than willing to hang around the courthouse (or by a fax machine) at all hours of the night to sign fill-in-the-blank warrants authorizing forcible blood draws, certainly we can find a judge or two who can sign an emergency protective order on short notice. It's not like they're going to read it or set a hearing to determine whether it's necessary or not.

Sheriff Garcia's plan addresses none of these issues.

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