Since Hurricane Harvey devastated the Harris County Criminal Justice Center in downtown Houston in August 2017, the county justice system has been backlogged with cases—putting increased pressure on the county jail and its growing inmate population, said Darryl Coleman, chief of the criminal justice command of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
Coleman said there were 8,845 inmates at the Harris County Jail as of July 26.
“8,000 [plus]people in our jail has our seams busted,” he said at a public safety meeting July 25.
The county is repairing the building, but judges are still sharing courtrooms and are not able to adjudicate as many cases, he said.
“[That] cuts down on the amount of trials that can be held, because the judge now does not have a courtroom five days a week; he has to share it with another court,” he said in a follow-up interview with Community Impact Newspaper. “That reduces the amount of trial time these courts can have.”
The county jail books about 300 inmates into the jail and releases 200 on a given day, Coleman said.
“It’s always backfilled with more coming in than coming out,” he said. “The wheel isn’t running.”
A large inmate population puts an added strain on staff, as the jail is required to have a 1 to 48 staff-to-inmate ratio at all times, Coleman said. Employees are required to work overtime to ensure the jail remains in compliance.
“Right now, everyone within my command has to work at least two double shifts a week,” he said. “That’s two days of 16 hours. Many of them are having to do three overtime shifts a week.”
Coleman said stretched staffing resources is an ongoing issue at the county jail.
“It’s been this way; this is not new,” he said. “It’s been this way for a few years now.”
Coleman said the reopening of the justice center, as well as the ongoing bail bond reform efforts and the jail’s existing diversion programs, should help alleviate some of the pressure. The center may reopen as early as spring 2020, he said.
“Once … it’s fully functioning and … every judge has their own courtroom back, we should see an increase in trial courts taking place,” he said.