Harris County aims to lower jail population, save money and cut inequality

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The most powerful people in law enforcement in Harris County are trying to get nearly 2,000 people out of jail through an unprecedented new plan.

If changes announced Thursday go into effect in Harris County, repeat drug users, prostitutes, thieves and the mentally ill could get greater access to treatment instead of prison. It is just one of the way a senior group of Harris County law enforcement officials aim to reduce the jail population by 1,800 inmates - a 21 percent reduction based on 2015 statistics.

It is sorely needed, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said.

"We use the jail as a housing project for people who don't need to be there," Hickman said.

DA Devon Anderson agreed.

"We have limited resources. We need to spend those resources on the people who are killing us, robbing us and raping us," Anderson said.

After a lengthy data-driven look at who the criminal justice system punishes in Harris County, the group known as the Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee admitted the system needs to change. DA Anderson said the data showed her "people are sitting in jail too long."

The group's first priority is finding a way to address the racial and ethnic inequalities currently in the system. According to data released Thursday:
    51 percent of Harris County Jail inmates incarcerated for State Jail Felonies are Black, but just 19 percent of the Harris County population is Black according to the US Census.
    21 percent of State Jail Felony inmates are Hispanic, Latinos represent 42 percent in the overall Harris County population.
    26 percent of State Jail Felony inmates are White, while 31 percent of the overall county population is.

The council members did not have immediate reasons for the longstanding disparities, which are common across America's urban centers, nor were there specific solutions beyond community outreach. There are plans to continue studying that.

The work, which many called unprecedented and Anderson called "a love fest," was spurred on by the possibility of a $2 million grant award from the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation.

Thursday afternoon the group announced numerous changes they hope to make to the criminal justice system including:

    - Several new staffers to work with the community on racial & ethnic disparities, speeding up dockets, and examining the jail population daily for long delayed cases
    - Adding a defense attorney to Probable Cause court for use in Mental Health cases to hopeful move seriously mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail
    - Add courts to reduce dockets and cut time from arrest to trial
    - Increased diversion programs for marijuana users
    - New diversion programs for Drug Possession (less than 1 gram), Theft 3rd offense & Prostitution 4th offense

The diversion programs would allow the accused who successfully go to treatment and don't re-offend to get a case wiped off their record. The groups suggested for diversion are the most likely to re-offend - in some cases with a 75 percent recidivism rate. It proved to some in the group, "locking them up isn't doing anything."

Implementing the changes will be a "huge culture change," according to the DA. To make it happen they will implement a massive countywide training later this month.

The decision from the MacArthur Foundation is due in March on the $2 million grant which would help make the proposals a reality.
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