Montgomery County Jail is at risk of overcrowding and needs additional space to house its ever-increasing population—bringing to the forefront jail expansion options to address the strain of a surging inmate populace.
For the past year—aware that the 1,253-bed jail was facing overcrowding issues based on projections showing a need for 1,350 beds by 2014 and 2,200 beds by 2034—the county has explored ways to help quell the inmate population through its jail expansion committee. Montgomery County Commissioners Court formed the committee—composed of commissioners, officials from the sheriff's office, district attorney's office, court administration and other county officials—in 2013 to begin the process of examining ways to expand a jail system nearing its maximum capacity, said Craig Doyal, Precinct 2 commissioner and committee member.
"The committee went through a lengthy process to look at options to try and keep the jail from overcrowding," Doyal said. "Not only did the committee look at options for increasing jail space by either expanding and renovating the current jail or building a new jail facility, it also looked at ways to improve the criminal courts."
County officials said the increase in the jail population stems largely from an uptick in felony case filings, which have bogged down the county court system. While the county looks at short-term solutions to improve the courts and other processes to mitigate the overcrowding, commissioners are also exploring long-term options to meet the demand of an additional 1,000 beds by 2034.
County officials hired Austin-based Broaddus Planning and Miami-based CGL Companies to explore two scenarios associated with either renovating and expanding its jail or building a new jail facility at a separate location. Both scenarios presented would almost double the number of existing beds and will each cost roughly around $200 million.
"I would say that right now everything is on the table," said James Noack, Precinct 3 commissioner and jail committee member. "When I say 'everything' it wouldn't be just those two options. It would be looking at ways in which we can reduce the current jail population; it would be looking at other alternatives. I personally don't have an appetite for a $200 million jail project right now."
With an inmate population consistently hovering around 90 percent capacity, the county often struggles to provide beds to all its inmates, with some having to sleep on the floor on occasion, said David Moore, Montgomery County jail administrator.
Even though the jail has a maximum capacity of 1,253 beds, not all of the beds can be occupied all the time because of inmate classification. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards has a working guideline for jails not to exceed 90 percent capacity, which is 1,125 for Montgomery County, Moore said.
"We are floating over that every day at 1,150 or 1,180, but we are not over 1,253," Moore said.
The jail was deemed at risk of being noncompliant with state standards due to overcrowding by the TCJS in July. Montgomery County Jail is one of five in the state, and the only one in the Greater Houston area, to be classified as at risk, TCJS Executive Director Brandon Wood said.
"To be classified as an at-risk jail means that we are closely monitoring the jail's population reports, especially on the weekends when the population is typically higher," Wood said. "Montgomery County Jail is required to submit daily population reports, and if the number of inmates exceeds the number of beds, it will be noncompliant."
If the jail is issued a notice of noncompliance, jail officials would need to submit a plan of action detailing steps to reduce the inmate population, Wood said. To be placed back in compliance, the jail must demonstrate a history of compliance and prove it was meeting and maintaining all standards.
"The challenge I face every day is trying to stay within the TCJS guidelines and no longer be an at-risk facility," Moore said. "My main goal is for everybody to have a bed. We are going to be put in noncompliance, which is a more severe step, if it happens anymore of people sleeping on the floor."
To ensure there are enough beds to cover the high number of inmates and maintain compliance, Moore said he has had to convert recreation areas into inmate housing, which has reduced space for programs and services and caused significant inmate idleness. Other areas of the jail have also been converted to make room for the growing inmate population.
"The jail has cleaning facilities stored in the hallway," Doyal said. "Every piece of space that's available has been used to the point that the jail is out of room for admin, storage of supplies and bed space."
Montgomery County is transitioning demographically from a more rural county to more of a suburban and urban county, due in large part to the significant growth in population and the county's economic prosperity, said Phil Grant, Montgomery County first assistant district attorney.
"Whenever you have an increase in population density, you are going to have an increase in the crime associated with that increase in population," Grant said. "With the growing number of inmates, we are seeing the natural result of a significant increase in population."
In addition, the number of felony case filings in the county has also increased by about 57 percent in the last decade, said Nate Jensen, director of court administration for Montgomery County. Jensen said the county's population growth is a factor in the rise of felony case filings, but the county's tough stance on crime also plays a part.
Grant said the increase in felony filings are in line with the county's population growth, which is the key factor causing the jail overcrowding. With about 60 percent of the jail population made up of pretrial felony cases and 6 percent being pretrial misdemeanor cases, Grant said the demographics show a balanced approach to prosecution.
"Our prosecution philosophy in this county is very aggressive, and we don't apologize for that," Grant said. "We believe in being very hard on repeat, violent and sex offenders. These are the types of criminals that are filling up the jail and bogging it down."
Another factor is the housing of prisoners who have been sentenced to the state penitentiary, known as paper ready, and who are not getting picked up in a timely manner, Moore said. Once these prisoners are sentenced, the state has 45 days to pick them up or must pay the county to house state prisoners, he said.
"The state has nowhere to put these prisoners in the penitentiary, so they sit in the county jail until the state comes and gets them," Jensen said. "Paper-ready inmates make up 3 to 5 percent of the jail population. So, at a population of 1,100, you're talking about 35 to 55 people who shouldn't be in the county jail, and on a weekend, it would make a big difference."
Fighting the increase
While the commissioners seek to determine the best option for accommodating future growth in inmate population, the county courts, sheriff's office and district attorney's office have all implemented strategies to ease the overcrowding and keep the jail in compliance.
The large pretrial inmate population has bogged down the courts and prompted the county to explore ways to accelerate access to the courts and bring cases to disposition faster, Grant said.
Jensen said the courts transitioned more than a year ago from general jurisdiction courts—courts that split time between hearing criminal, civil and family cases—to specialized courts in an effort to increase the number of criminal cases heard.
The county is also in the process of specializing another court to focus on felony cases to keep pace with the rising number of filings.
"The court's priority has been to get the felony cases moving," Jensen said. "From the beginning we knew specialization of the courts was going to help speed the process along."
In addition to specialization of the courts, Jensen said the courts can attempt to implement other policies aimed at reducing the jail population, such as making sure cases are heard and get to completion faster; exercising more options regarding sentencing by finding alternatives to jail time; and working with the criminal justice community to create efficiencies between county departments.
"I can make a recommendation to the judges that we make a policy to guide us how to do things, but at the end of the day, it is still up to the judge's discretion," Jensen said.
Prior to the issue of overcrowding, only jail trustees or those in a jail work program were offered the 3 to 1 program, meaning every day served counts as three days served. But with a need to keep population numbers down, the sheriff's office has opened the program up to many of its low-level misdemeanant inmates, said Randy McDaniel, chief deputy with the sheriff's office.
Other efforts include an agreement with San Jacinto County that states it will house up to 30 prisoners from Montgomery County at a cost of $30 per day per inmate, Moore said. Montgomery County pays about $41 per day to house an inmate, so the agreement proved to be a cost-effective option.
Moore said he is working on a similar deal with the Polk County jail, which has an additional 400 beds available.
"If I get that contract with Polk County, then I could send 400 up there, and that would knock our population down tremendously," Moore said. "We have got about everything I can think of in place to reduce the population. If the courts can help out, I think we can come down quite a bit more."
Grant said the district attorney's office is doing what it can to mitigate the jail population but said there are few options.
Some strategies the district attorney's office uses to tweak the jail population slightly include taking advantage of sentencing guidelines for low-level first offenders, resolving probation cases quickly and substituting house arrest or other sentencing options for jail time when appropriate.
"At the end of the day we are not clogging up the jail with a bunch of people that shouldn't be in there," Grant said. "The people that are in there need to be in there. We are moving in and out as quickly as we can, but we just need more space. There really is no other option."
Additional reporting by Jesse Mendoza