America's Jail Crisis: Budget-strapped counties are being crushed by the costs of incarceration. But there are solutions.
Out the 20th floor window of the Harris County Criminal Justice Center, the sprawl and elevation of buildings look like the campus of a law enforcement university, filling up the northeast corner of downtown. A juvenile justice center as big as a hospital. Two high-rise courthouses. An overrun booking tank. Beneath it all, tunnels run like veins through the complex, filled with inmates shuffling to hearings from the third biggest jail in America.
An average of 10,000 inmates were held per day in the Harris County Jail in 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, not including an additional 1,100 bused six hours to and from northern Louisiana. With an average stay of 45 days in three drab detention facilities, the jail is consistently overcrowded.
"This really wasn't built for this," says John Dyess, chief administrative officer of the sheriff's office, which oversees the jail. "I don't know if we can build our way out of where we are today."
Money may decide the issue. A stunning 25% of Harris County's annual $1.5 billion budget goes to law enforcement, with more than $750,000 a day spent on detainees. A shortage of guards means the jail shells out $35 million a year on overtime; some guards are topping out at $100,000 a year in total pay.
Houston is far from alone. Amid budget crises, falling tax revenue and national unemployment approaching 10%, jails--usually city- or county-run holding facilities for those serving short sentences or awaiting trial--saw their populations grow nearly twice as fast as state and federal prison populations during the first half of the decade, according to a 2008 report by the Justice Policy Institute. The report says that local governments spent $97 billion on criminal justice in 2004, up 347% since 1982, while detention expenses climbed 519% to $19 billion.
Between 2006 and 2008, Harris County's jail population grew 21%, adding 1,900 more mouths to feed three times a day. In 2000, there were 621,149 people in America's local hoosegows; by midyear 2008 there were 26% more, or 785,556 inmates housed at an average 95% of rated capacity.
Los Angles County has the largest daily jail population, 19,836, twice as much as in Harris County, followed by New York City. Rounding out the rest of the 10 biggest jail jurisdictions are Cook County, Ill.; Maricopa County, Ariz.; Philadelphia; Miami-Dade County, Fla.; Dallas County, Texas; Orange County, Calif., and Shelby County, Tenn.
From behind the brick walls in Houston, doctors write $1 million in prescriptions a month; dentists pull 330 teeth. Women are lined up shoulder-to-shoulder to fold bright orange clothes that come out of a battery of dryers that can handle 170 pounds of laundry a load. Men prepare 35,000 meals a day and 13 million meals a year at an average of 88 cents a plastic tray. A recent day's potatoes were wheeled into the kitchen on a crate stacked seven rows high, past a guard and an inmate shouting at each other--apparently the golden rule of not getting within "sight and sound" of female inmates was broken. Tensions are high since a brawl a few days before.
The $200 million spent on detention a year "puts a strain on resources" for other programs, says Dyess. But counties are legally obligated to provide a safe place for inmates and guards. Harris County has failed several jail standard tests and was recently cited for excessive use of force, inmate deaths, and poor medical and mental care (the jail says it serves as the biggest mental health facility in Texas).
The National Association of Counties is calling on communities to invest more into pretrial services so that people charged with non-violent offenses who don't need to be confined can be quickly vetted for community programs and the mentally ill can be put under health care services or, if needed, placed in a secure health facility. In Harris County, for instance, some people are detained for speeding tickets, yet potentially could be among those who cost about $485 a day for a bed in a local hospital.
"Many people are in jail because they are too poor to post bail," says Donald Murray, senior legislative director for justice and public safety for the association. "If you have a first-class pretrial program, a county is often in a better position because they can carefully analyze the individual, can figure out better what needs to be done."
The Justice Policy Institute says eight out of 10 people in jail earned less than $2,000 a month before they were locked up. Nearly two-thirds of the people behind bars are waiting for trial, while the length of pretrial detention has increased. Meanwhile, between 1986 and 2005, violent crime arrests climbed 25%, while drug arrests jumped 150%, 82% of them in 2005 for possession (about half for marijuana). And an estimated six out of every 10 jail inmates have a mental disorder, compared to 1-in-10 in the general population.
A guard in the 225-bed psych ward here sits near a sign that illustrates how to cut away a noose. Beneath it, a safety knife is held in a container for emergencies. Deputy Simon Ramirez Jr., 54, talks about how he's evolved from relying on the use of force in his youth to a more cerebral approach, as he and other guards in the ward "compete with the voices" in inmate heads. Many of his clientèle are homeless and arrive on repeated criminal trespassing arrests.
"A lot of these people just have to be by themselves," Ramirez says. "Nobody wants to build a mental health hospital. They use jails to warehouse people who have mental health issues."
State prisons aren't faring much better, with corrections nationwide costing more than $50 billion a year, according to a March report by the Pew Center on the States, called "One in 31: The Long Reach of American Corrections." The title comes from the ratio of people under some form of correctional control in the U.S.