Tough-on-crime Texas has prided itself on efforts to reduce its prisoner count over the last decade.
A key to continued progress will be whether Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city in a county with the third largest jail population, can trim its own numbers and prevent crime suspects from inundating the state prison system.
Officials from Houston’s Harris County are optimistic that a series of reforms are making headway, they told the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA), which is holding its annual forum on criminal justice this week in Fort Worth.
The changes center on quickly diverting accused low-level offenders to treatment programs instead of letting them languish in jail, Teresa May, the director of Harris County’s community supervision and corrections department, told NCJA’s opening session on Sunday.
When she started work five years ago, May said, suspects were routinely jailed for testing positive for marijuana, and probation officers were responsible for as many as 300 people, making effective supervision of all of them impossible.
May and other county officials arranged to have needs assessments done on incoming arrestees as soon as possible so that many of them could be referred immediately to a service provider and avoid jail cells altogether.
The county last year hired a “chief criminal justice strategist,” Leah Garabedian, who also spoke to the NCJA forum. In the last year and a half, Harris County has been able to process 5,700 pending low-level cases, the vast majority of them through a diversion process that do not result in a conviction, she said.
The Houston officials said their efforts have had some success. May said that one measure is how many defendants Harris County sends to the Texas state jail system, a number that is down from 6,000 in 2015 to about 2,000 this year so far.
The jail population suffered a setback this spring when court backlogs caused by Hurricane Harvey pushed the Harris County jail over capacity by 200, the Associated Press reported.
The Texas Commission on Jail standards reports that the Harris County jail population last week was 8,902, lower than the 9,350 when May started work in 2013 but higher than the 8,667 figure of a year ago.
In addition to the diversion programs, the county is working to cut a high rate of sending people who are on probation back to prison if they violate rules.
In a draft strategic plan, May’s department says that if a probationer “begins to struggle,” instead of sending the person behind bars immediately, a new assessment will be ordered “to determine if a higher level of care is appropriate to address his or her needs.”
Another speaker, Marc Levin of the Center for Effective Justice and the Right on Crime initiative at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a leading conservative theorist on criminal justice, said the Houston reforms “may sound a little touchy-feely but they help people and hold them accountable.”
Levin said the national picture is encouraging on more effective treatment of low-level offenders. He cited a newly enacted program in Ohio, “Targeted Community Alternatives to Prison,” that gives grants to counties that send such law violators to county jails instead of state prisons.
The Harris County jail reforms are being aided by a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety + Justice initiative, which is spending $100 million over five years to help localities “rethink justice systems and implement data-driven strategies to safely reduce jail populations.”
NCJA’s opening panel also heard from Mark Gonzalez, a defense attorney who was elected chief prosecutor in Nueces County, Texas, in 2016. He is trying out some of the same kinds of jail policy changes as are under way in the much larger Harris County.
Gonzalez was described by Politico as the “most unlikely district attorney in America,” a Democrat elected in a largely Republican county who is a self-described “Mexican biker lawyer covered in tattoos.”
Chris Asplen, a former prosecutor who now is executive director of NCJA, said he was encouraged that some prosecutors are broadening the concept of “victimization” beyond people who have been harmed by criminals to defendants who suffer from problems like substance abuse and mental illness.