By: Angie Vertti Canto
Harris County Jail detains over 10,000 people, over 80% of which are pretrial detainees. The jail’s average daily population has increased by 24% over the past two years. According to Harris County’s records, approximately 80% of people admitted to the jail are recorded as likely to be suffering from mental illness.
The population surge in the Harris County Jail has been accompanied by increased reports of violence, medical neglect, abuse, and in-custody deaths. Twenty-three individuals have already died this year while in Harris County Jail custody, according to official reports.
While people search for answers for their loved ones’ deaths, Texas continues to champion draconian criminal justice policies, deliberately ignoring the success of progressive reforms that have worked in other jurisdictions. Detaining so many people in such an inhumane manner does not legitimately serve any public interest. These deaths, overcrowding, and incidents of abuse have occurred despite 65% of Harris County’s budget going towards law enforcement.
One reason for the jail’s population surge is the passage of SB 6 in 2021, which effectively increased pretrial detention throughout Texas. The bill erected significant barriers for community bail funds, expanded pretrial detention, and ultimately undermined the presumption of innocence that bolsters our criminal justice system.
In particular, the law requires cash payments from individuals charged with certain categories of offenses, which effectively mandates pretrial detention of indigent individuals who cannot afford to pay bail. Some of these charges are disproportionately imposed on people with mental illnesses. This aspect of the bill has functionally nullified the Sandra Bland Act, which would have authorized magistrate judges to divert people with serious mental illnesses or intellectual disabilities to psychiatric facilities or treatment services, regardless of the charges faced and without regard to cash payments.
Additionally, SB 6 requires counties to create a public safety dossier for every individual arrested. As it is interpreted now, the law is causing huge delays because everyone is detained pending judicial review, even if they could pay and even if judges would prefer to release them on unsecured bond. In Harris County, this meant that the time it took to receive a bail hearing doubled after SB 6’s criminal history requirement went into effect. Many individuals wait in the Harris County Jail’s processing center for over 48 hours, which is a clear violation of the jail’s legal obligation to enter people into housing within 48 hours of arrival at the jail. These conditions have led to the deaths of at least two people, who died while waiting in the booking area since May.
Aside from SB 6, other factors contributing to the jail’s dangerous overcrowding conditions include a historic case backlog, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s ongoing policy to prosecute a high number of cases that are ultimately dismissed by judges, resulting in time-served or probationary sentences.
The jail cannot hold all the people that the Houston Police and the County Sheriff have been arresting, and that the district attorney has been charging. The bed shortage has led officials to transfer approximately 600 people to a for-profit jail in Louisiana. Another contract has been signed that would divert hundreds more to a for-profit jail in Lubbock, Texas. At least one person has died after being transferred this year.
This crisis demands bold changes to reduce the backlog of cases, combat overcrowding, and prevent future deaths and mistreatment. In an independent report published in June 2020, The Justice Management Institute concluded that the only realistic way to address the growing backlog of cases would be for Kim Ogg to dismiss all non-violent felony cases older than nine months. The report notes that only 42% of felony cases disposed of in 2019 resulted in a conviction, with the most common outcome being release back into the community on probation. Cases in 2021 followed the same general trend.
However, some policymakers continue to be staunchly carceral as they envision solutions to this mounting problem. In August, Kim Ogg stated plainly that reducing the historic case backlog would simply involve funding additional prosecutors – a request which has been denied numerous times by the Harris County Commissioners Court. Shortly thereafter, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez called for more funds to build a larger county jail. Resolving the ongoing crisis in Harris County is no easy feat, but it is certainly not impossible especially if we let go of our carceral instincts and think of what is truly going to benefit those caught up in the criminal justice system. Furthermore, regardless of what policies people espouse, it is unacceptable for the county to continue to allow deaths and other mistreatment to occur inside Harris County Jail. Ideological differences should not prevent policymakers from fighting for more humane treatment for detainees. We must not forget to fight for their rights as we take steps to prevent future tragedy.
Angie (they/them) graduated from Rice University with a B.A. in Sociology and Policy Studies and a minor in Politics, Law, and Social Thought. They are a 2L at Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law and have an interest in criminal justice reform and public interest work. They hope to practice criminal law and do policy work in the future. When not in law school, Angie enjoys gardening, creative writing, and playing with their cocker spaniel named Jasper.