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Analysis: Legislators Seeking a More Efficient Approach to Jail Policies

The “lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key” crowd has given way to another wave — across party lines, by the way — that’s trying to rework everything from whom police take to jail to who remains there overnight.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.

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*Correction appended.

What made sense to Texas politicians 20 years ago isn’t necessarily what makes sense to them now.

Watch the conversation over criminal justice through the elections and into next year’s legislative session: The “lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key” crowd has given way to another wave — across party lines, by the way — that’s trying to rework everything from whom police take to jail to who remains there overnight.

Here’s a sampling from state Sen. John Whitmire, the Houston Democrat who heads the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee: “My highest priority next year is going to be pretrial release,” he told a lunch crowd at the University of Houston. What’s he talking about? Three-quarters of the people in jail in Houston right now haven’t been tried; he and others think a lot of them should be at home. Or working.

He said local and state police take too many people to jail in the first place and don’t treat them properly once they’re there. Whitmire wasn’t talking about creature comfort but about the way people are arrested and then processed once they’ve been taken into custody.

In Dallas County, he said, less than four ounces of pot gets a perpetrator a ticket instead of a trip downtown. Making that change elsewhere would save 70,000 police trips to the jail every year, keep the police on the streets, save millions of dollars and put the focus back on public safety instead of relatively small infractions.

Whitmire’s important because of his position. But he was echoing what experts said during a daylong symposium called “Police, Jails, and Vulnerable People” on the UH campus. He has possession of sympathetic ears, too. A panel of legislators — two Republicans, two Democrats — talked about the issues at the end of the day, and their relatively few disagreements had more to do with particular issues than with any partisan differences.

Most of what was said would have fit under a title like “Don’t make things worse than they already are.”

One thing that stuck out was the number of people who are in jail waiting for something to happen. Some are dangerous and belong in custody. But many are there because the system isn’t set up to send them home until it’s time for their trials.

Money is a problem. In the Sandra Bland case that served as a sort of anchor for the conference, a woman was found hanged in a jail, and her death was ruled a suicide. But she arguably shouldn’t have been arrested in the first place. She couldn’t get out because her bail was set too high for her to pay her way out. In Bland’s case, that was a $5,000 bond; it would have cost her about $500 to get out, but she could not get the money.

That might not sound like enough money to create an obstacle. It is, but policymakers often have to have it pointed out to them. “I have a hard time telling my colleagues what $1,000 is,” Whitmire said. He said he had recently turned down a request from lobbyists for the bail bond industry, telling them he doesn’t want to meet with them until they’re ready to talk about reforms.

Too many of those people in the Harris County Jail waiting for their day in court are losing their jobs as a result, he said. Or their families. Given a chance to plead guilty and go home immediately, many do so. Whitmire said that, as a young lawyer, he counseled some of his clients to do just that.

Those people got out, but with convictions on their records. Criminal justice officials have to figure out which people are dangerous, which ones are likely to run and — experts here seemed to think this is the majority — which ones are likely to return for an appointment with the court if they can just go home now.

“We shouldn’t lock people up just because we’re mad at them,” Whitmire said.

You know how this would work: People do it every day when police write them traffic tickets. No arrests. No processing. No jail costs. Just a day in court and a fine.

It’s more efficient and less expensive than the old lock-'em-up system, and it might even improve the relations between the criminal justice system and the people it’s supposed to protect.

Right now, it’s more likely to scare them. 

Disclosure: The University of Houston is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the amount of marijuana it takes to trigger an arrest in Dallas County. It is four ounces, not four grams.

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Criminal justice State government John Whitmire Texas Legislature