For years Harris County has worked to keep its jail population low. But it’s not low enough, and now it’s costing taxpayers big money.
Since the middle of February 2018, Harris County taxpayers have spent more than $1 million shipping inmates across Texas and into Louisiana. It’s all related to Hurricane Harvey, but the jail wasn’t damaged.
Inside the Harris County jail, every possible jail bed is full and has been since mid-February.
“You can’t close the doors,” said Harris County chief, Darryl Coleman.
Coleman says there just isn’t room to keep all the accused criminals in town.
At last check, Harris County has 408 inmates locked up in jails near Waco, Beaumont, Texarkana, and just outside of Monroe, Louisiana.
Each out-of-town male inmate costs you $47 every night.
Women are an extra dollar, at $48 a night.
As of last week, that’s added up to a total of $1,070,669.
That total is still climbing and it doesn’t look like it’s stopping any time soon.
Hurricane Harvey is to blame.
The county courthouse didn’t flood, but electronics in the basement did, and when that happened, pipes burst, flooding courtrooms all the way up.
The building is still closed squeezing, three judges into civil courtrooms where there used to be one drastically time in front of a judge.
Cases now last longer. Chief Coleman traces it directly to Harvey.
“If the judge doesn’t have their courtroom all day, every day of the week, then in certain cases, at that court, cannot hear. And so that effect is felt over (in the jail) because when you probably would have had a certain, a pretrial felon have his trial and be adjudicated … Those numbers aren’t happening the way they were prior to Harvey,” said Coleman.
“I think it’s fairly inefficient,” said Eric Davis, trial chief of the Harris County public defender’s office. “I think it makes things fairly difficult.”
Davis says more access to judges and letting more accused criminals out on bonds should be the answer, not out-of-town jails.
“Your temporary solution to the problem makes the problem worse,” Davis said.
The Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg agrees, telling us, “More cases need to be called to trial more quickly.”
Doing it is tough. Judges are in temporary courtrooms, in four buildings. District attorney’s offices are now split across 11 county buildings. There are now 40 more mandatory docket call hearings every week to allow judges to try to move cases. In one recent week in late March, prosecutors needed to staff 155 docket calls in just one week. It’s up from 115 before the storm. During a docket call, dozens of defendants offer updates on their cases. Many of them result in no action and another setting.
“The one thing we know for sure is the felons aren’t getting out of jail,” Coleman said.
One last note on the cost of all this: It’s actually far cheaper to keep inmates at the out-of-town jails – as much as half the cost. But that’s just the jail bed. Add on the extra time for courts and judges and prosecutors, and insiders on every side of this tell us the answer is not outsourcing but getting courts back open, and there’s no date on that.