The burgeoning jail population in Houston’s Harris County is expected to reach 12,600 this spring, prompting newly elected officials to take a fresh look at ways to alleviate overcrowding, including releasing low-risk offenders, reports the Houston Chronicle. The new sheriff, district attorney and eight new criminal court judges will consider ideas championed for years by local lawmakers, defense lawyers and advocates for the poor and mentally ill.
The new Democratic judges have indicated they will consider releasing more low-risk offenders on personal bonds, returning to a policy virtually abandoned in recent years when Republicans controlled the courthouse. Personal recognizance bonds, allow defendants accused of nonviolent crimes to leave jail without having to post bail. The number of people in jail who are awaiting trial has grown by about 64 prisoners a month for the past two years and has more than doubled since 2001. Studies have shown that hundreds of homeless people with mental illnesses cycle repeatedly through the jail and emergency psychiatric wards. The average daily jail population has grown from about 6,400 in the 2001-02 fiscal year to nearly 9,500 in 2007-08. Since last year, the population generally has hovered around 11,000. Capacity is 9,435.