Commissioners Court extends jail outsourcing contract as precaution
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said Tuesday he is close to achieving his goal of ending the outsourcing of jail inmates, though he convinced Commissioners Court to renew a contract with the Fort Bend County Jail as a precaution.
The court’s Democrats said they feared the pact, which could cost as much as $878,000 — the cost of housing 43 inmates at the Fort Bend County Jail for one year — would provide the sheriff the wrong solution to solve overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.
“My concern is we not rely on this as a crutch,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said.
Gonzalez, a fellow Democrat, said he hopes to end outsourcing completely by March 11, the day 550 beds come online at the new Houston-Harris County joint processing center, and never resume the practice. He cautioned, however, that the county needs a contingency plan should another hurricane strike the region or new problems arise at the Harris County Jail.
Gonzalez had ended outsourcing within six months of taking office in 2017, but Hurricane Harvey that August halted court proceedings for weeks, causing an inmate spike which the sheriff said forced him to outsource hundreds of inmates to Louisiana. The chronically overcrowded county lockup failed a state inspection last November for the fifth time in two years.
“One of my top priorities… was to eliminate costly inmate outsourcing,” Gonzalez said. “Today, I am encouraged to see that we have reduced the number of outsourced inmates to just a few dozen, and all of them are in Texas facilities.”
Harris County returned all inmates from Louisiana late last year and as of Tuesday had 78 outsourced: 52 in Fort Bend County and the rest in other nearby counties. A sheriff’s office spokesman said the average number of Harris County inmates on a given day has dropped by almost 400 since last year.
Chief Darryl Coleman told the court that largely is largely due to new bail rules implemented by Harris County criminal court judges. Under the new rules, which went into effect in January, 85 percent of misdemeanor defendants automatically qualify for release on no-cash bail without ever being booked into the county jail.
Court members praised Gonzalez for ending outsourcing to Louisiana and asked the sheriff to inform them after March should he need to resume sending inmates beyond the county line.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he believes Gonzalez is committed to keeping the Harris County Jail below capacity, though he agreed the county needs a Plan B for inmates in case of emergency.
After clarifying the county would only pay for inmates when they are outsourced, court members voted 4-1 to approve the contract. Precinct 3 Republican Steve Radack, the lone opponent, had expressed frustration Fort Bend would ask to be compensated $55 per inmate per day when it has yet to reimburse Harris County for millions of dollars in expenses related to the use of its hospital district.
Devising schemes to get Fort Bend and other adjacent counties to settle their tabs with Harris County has been a pet project for Radack, who often mentions the issue when a Fort Bend-related issue comes up for discussion at court meetings.
“Why the hell are we paying them?” Radack said Tuesday. “These counties see Harris County as having deep pockets.”
County Budget Officer Bill Jackson agreed to consult with the county attorney and auditor to see what can be done.
Members of the civil rights group Texas Organizing Project, which successfully lobbied the Democratic court members earlier this month to oppose hiring 102 additional prosecutors, urged the court to reject the Fort Bend outsourcing contract.
Zach Despart covers Harris County for the Chronicle. You can follow him on twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org .