Lake Houston - Humble - Kingwood Edition | February 2023

The Harris County Jail population has been trending upward since May 2020, rising above 90% capacity in August 2022. According to Brandon Wood, director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, counties aim to keep their capacities under 90%. Wood said a county’s jail population will vary seasonally, rising throughout the summer months into the end of the year. TCJS reports after August were not available as of press time. Tracking Harris County’s jail capacity


Oct. 1, 2006 : Jail population reaches 102.3% of jail’s capacity

March 11, 2020 : County Judge Lina Hidalgo issues disaster declaration at start of COVID-19 pandemic

Nov. 1, 2017 : Jail population drops to 75.4% of jail’s capacity


County jails aim to keep capacities below 90%


June 1, 2017 : Jail population climbs to 88.7% of jail’s capacity

Aug. 1, 2022 : Jail population rises to 91.4% of jail’s capacity, the •rst time it exceeds 90% since 2016

July 10, 2007 : Commissioners

Dec. 18, 2007 : Commissioners renew previous outsourcing contract, bringing the total appropriation to $9M and the number of inmates to 600


approve an estimated $4M to outsource 400 inmates to Louisiana

Aug. 25, 2017 : County Judge Ed Emmett declares state of disaster following Hurricane Harvey



Expected to take eect in April, the program will provide services to indi- viduals found incompetent to stand trial—typically due to an active mental illness or intellectual disability. “There are too many folks with men- tal health issues stuck in jail for too long,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said at a Feb. 9 news conference. Commissioners approved close to $35 million in 2022 to send inmates to two private facilities in Louisiana and Post, Texas. Commissioners have also approved nearly $40 million in fed- eral American Rescue Plan Act fund- ing since 2021 as of October to tackle the court case backlog, according to the O ce of County Administration. County Administrator David Berry said at a July 19 meeting that using the fed- eral funds was not sustainable. In 2021, the Texas Legislature created the 482nd District Court, the rst new criminal district court in the county since 1984. But Megan LaVoie, the administrative director for the Texas O ce of Court Administration, said during her Dec. 9 testimony before the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice that, based on case lings, the county could need as many as 41 more district courts, which cost between $500,000- $1 million each to create. Jovanna Aguilar contributed to this report.

organization advocating for jail reform, said in a statement she believes state and local policies have contributed to the growing pretrial percentage. Gundu said she believes the jail’s issues are the result of “accountability ping-pong” but also cited Senate Bill 6 as a reason for the rise in the jail pop- ulation. The bill, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2021, bans cashless bail for people charged with a violent oense as well as those charged with committing a felony while out on bail or community supervision following a previous violent oense charge. A path forward The county has had to address high jail populations before. The jail was over 90% capacity for much of 2005- 09, TCJS data shows. According to archived agendas from the clerk’s o ce, commissioners approved $9 million to outsource 600 inmates to Louisiana on Dec. 18, 2007. In addition, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said at a January 2022 Commissioners Court meeting that when he became sheri in 2009, his o ce also created programs to allow inmates to build credit toward earlier releases and to keep people with men- tal health conditions out of jail. How- ever, he said most people in the jail had been charged with low-risk oenses. Commissioners Court approved a $645,000 expansion of the Har- ris Center for Mental Health and IDD’s Jail-Based Competency Resto- ration Program at its Jan. 31 meeting.

Jail snapshot Among the county jail’s population on Jan. 23:

were charged with violent or serious crimes

of inmates had a mental health indicator




Commission on Jail Standards, said counties aim to keep their jails under 90% of capacity because jail operations become di cult above that level. The commission’s most recent report shows Harris County’s jail was at 91.36% of the total capacity on Aug. 1. Spencer said a con™uence of factors, including a rise in crime nationally during the pandemic, has contributed to the high jail population, but he believes each entity needs to evaluate where it could improve. “The bottom line is, are we keeping everyone safe in the jail?” Spencer said. “We have to do better.” In terms of the district attorney’s role in the jail population, Communi- cations Director Joe Stinebaker said in a statement judges determine who is detained pending trial. He said reduc- ing the court backlog would “remain a top priority” for the DA’s o ce. Unlike a state prison, the Harris County Jail is lled mostly by people awaiting trial—80.5% of the jail population on April 1 was pretrial, the second-highest rate in the state behind Travis County, according to American Civil Liberties Union data. Krishnaveni Gundu, executive direc- tor for the Texas Jail Project, a nonpro t


keeping 64 inmates in temporary hold- ing cells for longer than 48 hours, and again Dec. 19 for failing to provide an inmate insulin. Jason Spencer, spokesperson for the Harris County Sheri’s O ce, con- rmed 28-year-old Matthew Shelton died March 27 of diabetic ketoacido- sis. Shelton was one of 27 people who died in Harris County in the custody of the HCSO last year, the most since 23 deaths in 2006, according to data from nonpro t Texas Justice Initiative. County o cials and criminal justice advocates oered varying explana- tions for the jail’s problems. “It’s not any one thing. The backlog of cases, the amount of time that peo- ple are spending in jail. … People who are coming into jail are coming in fre- quently with pre-existing health condi- tions,” Spencer said. The county has dealt with high jail populations before, and along with hir- ing a new head of detentions following Shannon Herklotz’s resignation Jan. 9, o cials could take action this year. ‘Accountability ping-pong’ Brandon Wood, director of the Texas

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