Federal Law From 1980s Makes Fixing Local Jails Hard

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The Harris County Jail in Houston is among the nation’s largest, and it’s one of the most deadly. Scores of inmates have died, often from a lack of prompt medical care or staff misconduct. Inmates have continued to die preventable deaths there, despite U.S. Justice Department’s efforts to negotiate improvements, reports The Marshall Project. One problem is a 36-year-old law, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act, or CRIPA. It was designed to help the federal government protect people in state or local jails and prisons, as well as institutions designed for the elderly, the disabled, and the mentally ill.

It focuses on allowing state and local governments to fix problems voluntarily, rather than with federal lawsuits or takeovers. The result at the Harris County jail, with a population of 9,000, and at other large facilities, has been “lots of talk, less action and, in some notable cases, scant sustainable improvement,” the Marshall Project says. The DOJ power to fix prisons and jails is more limited under CRIPA. Department lawyers can try to force change through court order, but each step of the process triggers periods of review that can prolong the initial effort by months and even years. “There’s not a great track record that litigation is a huge success,” said former DOJ attorney Jonathan Smith. “Fixing a jail takes a long time. The jurisprudence is hostile.”

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