Dec 20, 2022 - News

Harris County Jail overcrowding reveals flaws in legal system

Illustration of a gavel sticking through the bars of a jail door.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

27 people have died in the Harris County Jail system so far this year, the highest death toll since at least 2000. Reform advocates point to the jail's overcrowding and the overwhelmed local criminal legal system as factors in the deaths.

What's happening: The criminal legal system is bursting at the seams. While the jail has long been hampered by overcrowding, this year the population exceeded its capacity of 10,000 for the first time in over a decade.

  • As of Dec. 19, there were 9,911 individuals in jail custody, but throughout the year, the population has hovered around the jail's capacity, according to the facility's population dashboard.
  • The county is spending upward of $35 million as part of a contract to move people to two private facilities due to overcrowding. It's moved 981 people so far and is continuing to move more people weekly.

Why it matters: The vast majority of the people in the jail — more than 8,000 — are awaiting trial and haven't been convicted, according to the jail's population dashboard.

  • People awaiting trial are locked up an average of 199 days, or about six months, which is the length of a prison sentence in some cases.
  • Nationally, the average number of days someone spent in jail in 2020 was 28 days, according to the most recent figures by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Context: The rate of court hearings slowed down after Hurricane Harvey caused major structural damage to the courthouse in 2017. The backlog grew during the pandemic, and the situation has been exacerbated by the passing of Senate Bill 6, which implemented stricter bail measures as of last December.

  • Arrest practices and lingering old cases have also contributed to the court docket jam.

Between the lines: Critics say overcrowding has strained the system and contributed to the deaths, in part due to unhealthy conditions and poor access to timely medical care.

  • The 27 deaths this year were due to various causes, including suicide, medical issues and drug overdose, according to custodial death reports from the Texas attorney general's office.
  • The sheriff's office said this year marks the highest death toll since at least 2000. According to nonprofit Texas Justice Initiative, which has been tracking jail deaths since 2005, the highest previous death toll was in 2006, when 23 people died.
  • Plus: At least 10 additional people died this year during the arrest process, prior to being booked in the jail, according to a Civil Rights Corps analysis of AG reports.

The intrigue: The Texas Commission on Jail Standards put the county jail under "noncompliance" status in September after an inspection found 64 people spending more than the maximum 48 hours in the booking area's holding cells to be processed, in part because of the lack of rooms available.

  • Harris County Jail has been in noncompliance eight times in the past five years, according to Ricky Armstrong, the assistant director of enforcement and inspections at TCJS.
  • The jail submitted a letter to the TCJS detailing its plan to address the commission's concerns, including outsourcing 600 more detainees elsewhere, replacing old beds in the infirmary, and trying to properly enforce the 48-hour rule.
  • What we're watching: An inspector from the TCJS will be sent to Harris County unannounced to ensure that the jail is following its plan and complying with minimum jail standards. The inspector will work with the county until the problem has been corrected, according to Armstrong.

What they're saying: Jason Spencer, chief of staff at the sheriff's office, tells Axios that while he agrees that conditions in the jail are not ideal, the jail can't control how long people are held before trial — it's dependent on the court system.

  • "Jails are not built for long-term residency. They're built for temporary holding while people await trial," he says.
  • He also downplayed the death count, comparing the jail to a medium-sized town. "If you had a town, a city of 10,000, the number of deaths is, I don't think it's out of line with that," he says.

The other side: Krishnaveni Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project, a Houston-based nonprofit that advocates for people in county jails, says while the jail may not be responsible for delays in the court system, it's still doing a poor job of keeping people safe and healthy.

  • "These are people under their supervision. The jail has custodial responsibility. Any deaths that occur there because of lack of access to medical care are preventable," Gundu says.
Waiting longer in jail

Critics say the new bail system under S.B. 6 restricts, confines and penalizes poor people who can't afford the cash required to await trial at home.

Catch up quick: S.B. 6 requires cash bail for people accused of violent crime, so they cannot be released on personal recognizance bonds, or released without a cash deposit.

  • Gov. Greg Abbott has said S.B. 6, also known as the Damon Allen Act, is intended to make it harder for dangerous criminals to be released from jail on bail. The bill was created after state trooper Damon Allen was killed in 2017 by someone out on bail.

How it works: Putting together a case and compiling all the necessary files, such as body camera footage, can take six to nine months, according to Kelli Johnson, a Harris County Criminal District Court judge.

  • Plus: The courts continue to reschedule hearings, delaying the process even more, according to Gundu.

Between the lines: The broken system disproportionately hurts already marginalized communities, such as low-income people and those with mental illnesses.

Of note: The jail is one of the largest, if not the largest, confiners of people with mental illness in Texas, per Politico. Nearly 80% of jail confinees have a mental health indicator in their file and a third are on psychotropic drugs.

What they're saying: "Jails are intrinsically dangerous places that are not set up to care for the most vulnerable," Gundu says.

  • Gundu says a common charge for people with mental illnesses is assaulting a law enforcement officer, which can include someone with autism reacting negatively because they don't want to be touched.
Deadly consequences of overcrowding
Data: Texas Justice Initiative and the sheriff's office, Axios research; Chart: Kavya Beheraj/Axios

Conditions in the jail were already abysmal before the pandemic, but the overcrowding has made the situation even worse, says Elizabeth Rossi, lawyer and director of strategic initiatives at the Civil Rights Corps, a national nonprofit that challenges systems of injustice.

  • "They're suffering immense harm and the immense violence; they're dying at astronomical rates. And that's the violence and that's the harm that we should be concerned about as a society," Rossi tells Axios.

Details: The 27 deaths this year, reported by the sheriff's office and the attorney general, were due to various causes, including suicide, medical issues and drug overdose.

  • Billie Davis, 35, died on March 1 after he was found unresponsive in a private facility in Louisiana, where Harris County has sent detainees as a way to address overcrowding, according to the sheriff's office.
  • Matthew Ryan Shelton, 28, died on March 27 from serious complications of diabetes. While an autopsy attributed his death to a natural cause, diabetic ketoacidosis, Shelton's family says he was not given access to the insulin he needed to treat his condition, per the New York Times. The sheriff's office said they are unable to comment on the details because of litigation.
  • Damien Johnson, 27, died after a suicide attempt on Nov. 15, three and half months after being arrested.

Zoom out: Jail deaths have been rising since before the pandemic and have spiked across the country this year, per the New York Times.

  • New York City, Oklahoma City, Seattle, Pittsburgh and Louisville, Kentucky, as well as California and Georgia, have recorded increases in deaths.
Pointing fingers and lacking solutions

So far, the solution to overcrowding has been to ship people away.

Details: The Harris County Commissioners Court approved spending $25.7 million of federal COVID-19 relief funds to relocate 600 people to Giles W. Dalby Correctional Facility in Post, near Lubbock — almost 500 miles away.

  • In January, the county also moved hundreds of people to LaSalle Correctional Center in Louisiana, more than four hours away from Houston. According to the contract, Harris County pays approximately $65 per person per day, which is about $8.6 million so far, according to the Harris County Clerk's Office.

Why it matters: Court hearings for detainees in these facilities have been delayed because they are so far away, making it harder to arrange travel, Judge Johnson says.

  • Johnson, the elected judge for the 178th Criminal District Court, tells Axios attorneys have reported being unable to speak with their clients before trial and lawyers are hesitant to use the jail video conferencing, causing further delays.

State of play: Reform advocates say the strategy to send detainees elsewhere is not sustainable and have instead pushed for an overhaul of the system and the dismissal of old cases.

The Justice Management Institute has consulted with Harris County for years to reduce its jail population. In 2020, Elaine Borakove, JMI president, recommended the dismissal of nonviolent felony cases older than nine months to address the backlog.

  • She pointed out that most felony cases in 2019 were dismissed, deferred or acquitted. "Even when individuals were convicted on nonviolent felony charges, the most likely outcome was release back into the community on probation," Borakove wrote in a letter to the Commissioners Court.
  • Borakove noted in the letter that adding judgeships, more district attorneys, court clerks, public defenders and more resources would not solve the problem due to the backlog of cases.

Of note: JMI found that in 2020, even if no new cases came in, it would take years to clear the old ones.

What they're saying: "Judges determine who should be detained in jail pending trial and who should not," District Attorney Kim Ogg's office told Axios. Her office did not respond to further questions regarding the JMI recommendations.

Johnson says the judges are going as fast as they can.

  • She also points out that the Commissioners Court did not approve a new budget for 2023, which could have paid for additional resources such as court reporters and visiting judges. It is "a very discouraging situation," she says.
  • There were nearly 40,000 cases in the Criminal District Courts as of November.

Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis said in a statement to Axios that while the JMI recommendations are data-driven, impactful strategies, "many of the recommendations haven't been taken up by those in a position to do so."

  • He added that "stakeholders still over-rely on arrest, incarceration, and prosecution instead of better utilizing pre-arrest diversion programs, crisis interventions, and other public safety tools."

Gundu from the Texas Jail Project says the county continues to invest in punitive measures, like more law enforcement, jail space and surveillance, instead of health care, housing and other measures that address the root of what criminologists say causes crime.

The other side: City and county leaders have emphasized the need to decrease crime.

  • Crime increased in Houston in 2020 and 2021, but that is the case for most major U.S. cities.
  • The increase in homicides began around the start of the pandemic, but Houston has seen a decline in homicides this year.
  • Overall, Harris County's violent crime rate has decreased by 12% from 2021, according to the Office of County Administration.

What they're saying: "Nobody is suggesting that violence and harm are not problems in society. Of course they are. The question is where do we put resources to address those harms?" says Rossi.

The bottom line: Those in power are deflecting blame for overcrowded conditions and the rising death toll, as the county continues to lack a clear action plan for addressing the crisis.

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