Harris Co. inmates wait too long to get into jail, fix costs you millions

ByTed Oberg and Sarah Rafique via KTRK logo
Monday, August 29, 2022
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13 Investigates found some Harris County inmates wait 48 hours or more before getting booked, causing a delay in the first step of an already backlogged criminal justice system.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The blue chairs lining the intake room at the Harris County Joint Processing Center were more packed than usual in July. But, it wasn't just because there were five times as many people arrested that month compared to January.

Our 13 Investigates analysis of jail intake and booking data found 14% of people arrested in Harris County so far this year waited 48 hours or more before getting booked, causing a delay in the first step of an already backlogged criminal justice system.

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"It's not ideal for anyone. It's not ideal for my staff. It's not ideal for the people being processed. I would like to process them quicker," Harris County Sheriff's Office Major Patrick Dougherty told 13 Investigates Ted Oberg. "We would like people out of here in 24 hours. That would still be a goal."

Every single person who is arrested in Harris County, and every individual who leaves the Harris County jail, goes through the joint processing center.

Every month, hundreds of accused criminals are photographed and fingerprinted and meet a lawyer and judge at the joint processing center. If the individual is granted bail, but can't pay, they will receive a medical exam and are issued uniforms before being sent to one of the housing units at the larger jails across the street.

But, our investigation found the wait to get to a jail cell can sometimes take days, leaving the accused left to sit, and sleep, in chairs.

"I don't think there's any excuse for treating humans that way and if you think about it, these people are waiting to see a judge, so if you keep somebody in a processing center with no hot meal, no hygiene, no medical services for seven, eight days and then you bring them in front of a judge, there's no telling what somebody may agree that they did just in the promise of getting out of the processing unit," Meg Pohodich said.

Pohodich runs Harmony House, which provides transitional housing for homeless individuals.

"It's not uncommon for me to have clients that are in the county jail," she said. "I had a client call. I also had a friend that called, who had been sitting and processing for days."

The sheriff's office told us there were medical and technology complications in those cases, but we kept digging.

Our investigation found 1,008 of the 7,134 inmates brought to the joint processing center this year through Aug. 4 had to wait 48 hours or longer before getting booked.

The inmates aren't handcuffed to the chairs, and they're able to make calls, eat and use the bathroom, but they're stuck sitting in a chair most of the time.

"They're not getting any rest. I mean, they can rest in their chairs and all, and we do take people to holding cells when they need to lay down and things like that, but it's a process they need to go through," Dougherty said.

Now, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards could find the jail out of compliance.

The commission makes the rules for Texas jails and told us, "holding cells shall not be used for more than 48 hours to hold inmates pending intake, processing, release, or other reasons for temporary holding. This is a standard that applies to all county jails in Texas and jails can be issued a notice of non-compliance for exceeding the 48 hour limit."

Brandon S. Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, said if a jail exceeded the 48-hour time limit because of a disturbance or emergency - such as computer issues earlier this year in Harris County - that would be taken into account.

He said if a jail has intake delays due to a one-time housing issue that "would be basis for technical assistance and a request that the county institute corrective action to ensure it does not occur again. Retaining inmates in holding past the 48 hour limit on a regular basis due to lack of bed space is not viewed the same as the examples just provided and when TCJS has been able to determine this has occurred, we have issued notices of non-compliance for this, including two within the past six months."

The jail gets an average of 280 to 300 people who come through the center every day, Dougherty said.

Lately, Dougherty said the jail has been at 99% capacity every day. It's so full the county is paying $9 million in taxpayer funding to outsource inmates to a jail in Louisiana and will soon pay $26 million more to send hundreds of others to a North Texas facility for housing.

"It takes me time to find housing for the people who need to stay in jail and then on top of that, our bookings are up," he said. "Law enforcement in Harris County are trying to do the right thing. They're not spending a lot of time on low-level crimes. They're really trying to protect the community by arresting people who are a danger to the community, the more violent criminals."

But, he said most violent criminals stay in jail longer, which is causing an impact on the overall system by creating a "one-for-one" situation.

The jail can't move someone waiting in a chair in the processing center to a bed until an inmate either bonds out or is convicted and moves to a state prison facility, thus freeing up a spot. And even when a bed is open, Dougherty said it becomes a juggling act.

There's more than 18 different workflows that a person could go through and each one depends on the individual's charges and criminal history, he said. For example, someone with their first DWI can get booked and released, but someone with a DWI and two felony warrants in other counties will have to go through a lengthier process.

"When your jail is full, you can't just say, 'OK, there's an open bed, just put somebody there.' It has to be the right kind of bed and the right kind of facility," Dougherty said. "I may have prisoner A, who needs to go into a bed that is classified for prisoner A. (To do that), I may have to move this person here to here to here so I can get (prisoner A) into bed A because I'm at 99%, so it takes a lot more time to find beds when you're at 99%."

Across Harris County, there are 43,978 pending felony cases and 58% of them have been waiting for a resolution for 180 days or longer, according to the Harris County District Courts. There are tens of thousands more misdemeanors pending.

County jail data shows 9,968 people in Harris County jails as of Friday, with an additional 462 inmates outsourced to another facility due to a shortage of beds. The average length of stay for inmates is 190 days.

Dougherty said a backlog of cases in the criminal justice system has made his job moving the accused from the intake center to beds harder, too.

"(Reducing the backlog) would help by reducing the jail population, and that's the catalyst to a lot of the criminal justice processing in Harris County," he said. "We have some inmates here for many years and that creates a lot of pressure on the jail population."

Our analysis of jail records show 186 inmates spent more than three days in processing this year.

The processing center can't turn local law enforcement agencies away due to a shortage of beds once they've arrested someone.

The sheriff's office insists the process is working, it's just a bit slower than they'd like.

In the meantime, advocates like Pohodich worry about the conditions of inmates who are left trying to stay awake for days on end, sleeping in a chair.

"There has to be an answer," she said. "They need to speed up trials. They need to make more space for people. We can't just crowd people in like animals."

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