County Considers Options After Jail Defeat

Harris County Officials are still exploring their options two weeks after local voters defeated a bond referredum that would have funded a new county jail and central processing center for inmates. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, there's a decent chance the county could try to convince voters again next year.

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It wasn't an overwhelming defeat but it was enough to put the new jail and joint processing center on hold for now. The county had hoped voters would approve $195 million in bonds to build the facility next to an existing one on the north side of downtown. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett says he's not worried.

"It's not a major crisis. It's something we will have to deal with. I think we probably, we being I, probably didn't do the best job of explaining the location of the jail because I've run into people who have said we shouldn't be putting a jail on the banks of Buffalo Bayou when in fact there's already a jail on the banks of Buffalo Bayou. This is just completing that unit. That will all be worked out, but when it comes back, we'll talk about it and decide."ξξξ

Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia has instructed the county's budget officials to look for other ways to finance a new facility. She says she thinks voters got locked into the notion the money was simply for new jail cells and nothing else.

"It's more than anything a central processing center which means that it will save time and money and police officer time for the city of Houston so that they won't have to book people at their jails and then transfer them to the county, so it would be more of a one-stop shop for booking. Somehow we failed to get that message across, that this is a central processing center. It really is not a new jail."ξξξ

The city of Houston would have shared in the cost of the facility. City voters had already approved $32 million in bond money for the project. Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack says the people have spoken and should have the final say if officials want to keep the project alive.

"I'm a firm believer if the voters voted and voted no, then instead of trying to go find another way of doing it I think it needs to come back before the voters again. That's the message to me. I would prefer to have another bond election then to proceed in another way since the voters turned it down."

Sheriffs Department Lieutenant John Martin says it's clear the jail facilities are nearing capacity and something will have to be done sooner rather than later.

"We've got a daily population now that's hovering right around 10,000 people. The only reason we're not above capacity now is because of a variance that's been granted to us by the jail commission. It's pretty clear to us that we need to be seeking some solutions for our population in the near future."

The new processing center and jail facility would have added 2,500 new inmate beds and additional mental health treatment facilities. The final cost of the facility was expected to be $245 million.

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