Houston City Council heard an update Wednesday on the progress toward an inmate processing center, to be a joint effort with Harris County. Officials in both local governments, in a cooperative swoon of late, say the stars are aligned to get the long-discussed project done, or at least get the planning done, this year. The key goals of the proposed facility — a similar, larger version of which was rejected by voters in 2007 — are to make the processing of booking prisoners in and out of jail more efficient, to better connect mentally ill inmates with social services, and to get the city out of the jail business.
The county’s booking center has remained over capacity even as the jail population has fallen sharply — about 29 percent since 2008. That forces people arrested for A and B misdemeanors and low-level felonies to stack up in the city’s two aging jails before they can be transferred to the county lockup, Mayor Annise Parker said. The average length of stay in the city jail is 21 hours, said Chief Development Officer Andy Icken.
About 55 percent of the city’s jail population (the two facilities have a capacity of about 440 beds, with an average headcount of about 300, Icken said) on any given day are people who, by law, could be handed directly to the sheriff.
The remaining 45 percent of the city inmates, Icken said, are municipal prisoners, those booked on Class C misdemeanor tickets and those who chose to serve a few days rather than pay a fine. About a fifth of this population is typically made up of drunks, who are expected to be diverted to the city’s new sobering center rather than arrested.
A key issue yet to be determined (officials say to expect hard numbers in June) is who will pay for what. Just as it was in the Wild West, running the jail is a county function, but the city is responsible for the municipal prisoners it books for violations of city ordinances.
The city and county are splitting the preliminary $250,000 cost of hiring an architectural consultant 50-50, but Parker said that won’t be the split on the building itself. The city will need to arrive at a capital cost to contribute (it already has about $25 million set aside), she said, and the two governments will have to work out a per capita cost the city would pay the county to house its municipal prisoners, if the city does fully shutter its jail system.
On the one hand, Icken said it costs the city about $30 million annually to operate its jail system. The city’s costs would be substantially reduced by sending everyone to the county, which could indicate city officials would be willing to scrounge up quite a bit of cash. On the other hand, the city has no legal responsibility to deal with a majority of the prisoners it is paying to house today (that 55 percent who are simply awaiting transfer to the county).
“In some ways, it’s more of a benefit to city of Houston, but in another way it just makes sense, because 55 percent of the prisoners we arrest are ultimately going to end up in the county jail. It’s more humane to take them directly there, we don’t have to keep handling them, they can be booked in, there’s more stability,’ Parker said. “This allows us to gradually shift an appropriate responsibility to the county in a way that’s seamless and doesn’t cause any disruptions on either side.”
The proposed location in 2007, on the banks of Buffalo Bayou, drew opposition from some quarters. Icken said the most likely location for the facility today would be where a parking lot exists today, on San Jacinto Street next to the county’s Baker Street jail.
“We all understand the priority of moving on this. We’ve been very clear that, from a self-serving viewpoint, the city wants out of the jail business,” Icken said. “The $30 million that we show is something that we believe can be significantly reduced as we go through this process.”
Councilman Jack Christie, who has cajoled city and county leaders to cooperate more since taking office in January 2012, praised the growing “political symbiosis” as a “sight to behold.”
“Directly or indirectly, the county and city are one if we’re serving the taxpayers properly,” he said. “We’re saving the taxpayers’ money, but we’re also making the process more efficient. Keep it up.”
Parker marveled at how things have progressed on the issue, noting the remarkable cooperation the two governments (whose leaders seemed to make a point of sniping at each other as recently as last summer) have reached.
“I will confess, there was a time when I threatened to call the sheriff and just say, ‘I’m going to take these prisoners over and chain them out in front of your gate because you’re not letting me release them from my jail,’ but it was a matter of he just didn’t have the capacity. Things are completely different now,” she said.
“He has space in the county jail, we have taken steps to decrease our own prisoner headcount, and there’s a recognition that financially at all levels of government that the Harris County jail should not be the largest provider of mental health services in the state of Texas.”
“If we take our drunk and disorderly out of the stream and we work together on an alternative for mental health,” she continued, “we can significantly reduce the headcount again.”