Houston’s Harris County accounts for about one-quarter of the criminals sent to Texas prisons and has sent more people to death row than most other states put together, says the Austin American-Statesman. It has a reputation for handing out some of the toughest sentences in Texas. Officials agree that if Texas is ever to solve its growing prison crowding crisis with enhanced felony probation programs, a solution will have to catch on in Harris County. “People like to throw rocks at Harris County,” said Paul Donnelly, director of the local Community Supervision and Corrections Department. “But Texas has never given probation the tools it needs to or given us an opportunity to sprout the innovative programs.”
The history of Harris County probation programs mirrors the history of other counties: Big plans often turned into broken promises. In 1993, Houston officials embraced a new state jail program to incarcerate and rehabilitate nonviolent, first-time offenders. Within a few years after it opened, the showcase Top Street State Jail in downtown Houston had been taken over by the state and was housing regular convicts with few programs. As the funding evaporated, so did various programs, some of which were touted as national models. Much of the funding came from $112 million in fines that the state paid to Harris County as part of a landmark jail-crowding lawsuit. With 700 employees and almost 39,000 probationers to keep track of, Harris County’s is the largest program in Texas.