Blame and praise over jail

In need of sanity

The three-year-long Harris County jail overcrowding crisis has not changed and the problem lies squarely at the feet of the local judiciary due to draconian practices that, in some instances, are not even practiced anywhere but Harris County. Decreasing the jail population by 500 is simple and does not put the public at risk.

Just last year, Judge Caprice Cosper agreed that the Harris County jail population of 941 state jail felons was huge and that the judges planned to address the problem. They did not and now that population is 1,294 - a whopping 70 percent of the state total of 1,850. Most of these jail inmates are nonviolent drug users [not sellers] who are supposed to have benefited by the state's new law to put first-time drug offenders into treatment.

Harris County also leads Texas in the odd practice of giving "jail time as a condition of probation." Even after a jury or plea bargain mandates probation, judges often order some jail time in addition to the probation.

Harris County has a probation revocation rate of 17 percent, which is the highest of any large county in Texas. Harris County judges themselves have noticed the difficulty in meeting the myriad probation requirements yet have not acted to lower probation revocations to put Harris County in line with the rest of Texas.

Forty percent or around 3,700 of the jail's population have not been convicted of a crime but are merely awaiting trial. A few decades earlier only 25 percent of the jail inmates were these "pretrial detainees." Such a difference equates to over 500 more inmates today.

Several judges even jail defendants who have not promptly hired a lawyer after they have initially bonded out of jail. Such jailing violates the law and points to a Harris County judicial predisposition to jail defendants as a solution to perceived problems.

It is time to put the Harris County criminal justice system into a semblance of Texas sanity and for the courts to implement the law's mandated compassion to ease jail overcrowding.

RANDALL L. KALLINEN president, Houston ACLU

A good example

The Commission on Jail Standards was established by the Legislature in 1975 to correct the problem of only four of Texas' 254 county jails meeting minimum health standards. Two sheriffs, one county judge and a medical doctor serve on the commission, along with five at-large members. So this past week's unanimous vote telling Harris County to transfer 500 prisoners, after a three year period of "tolerance," came from an empathic group.

It is clear from their measured response that the

Harris County Commissioners Court
and Sheriff Tommy Thomas take seriously their responsibility to comply with state law. Good for them.

The law's purpose is to protect the rights of all citizens to due process and provide a "safe" ratio of guards for their as well as the prisoners' protection. It recognizes that many who are locked in our county jails are truly, as they are presumed to be, "innocent" and that most of these prisoners will, whether guilty or innocent, be back on the streets one day. How we treat them reveals what kind of society we are.

Balancing the interests of trying and punishing the guilty, protecting society, observing the constitutional rights of all of us and assuring a safe working environment for our jail guards is not an easy task. But there is every reason to believe that Harris County can indeed provide another good example of leadership for the state in the usually back-burner issue of jail conditions and prisoners rights. It is the law and it is the right thing to do. Thanks for the good example being set.

JIM GREENWOOD first chairman of Texas Commission on Jail Standards (1975-78), Houston