Texas Voters Narrowly Approve New Inmate Processing Center

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas — Though initial polls showed strong support, Harris County’s proposed joint inmate processing center was approved by an extremely narrow margin. The proposition to establish the new center, which will eliminate the need to book offenders in both the city and county jail, won just 50.1 percent of votes.

This 552-bed, 255,000-square-foot inmate processing center will be shared between the county and the city of Houston. The proposition does not require a tax increase and will reportedly save both entities money. It is also intended to help reduce recidivism rates by providing expanded social services such as mental health treatment, and refer those who shouldn’t necessarily be in the criminal justice system to the appropriate places.

Officials estimate that the new facility would process roughly 170,000 detainees annually, and that nearly half would likely be released within 72 hours. The existing 20-year-old Harris County Inmate Processing Center now books more than 320 inmates per day, and officials report its inefficient design impedes their work. “We have a lot of folks that come in for minor offenses. Well, they’re here for the duration, just like someone who is booked on a robbery or murder charge,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office Major Debra Schmidt.

Though voters roundly defeated a proposed $245 million, 2,500-bed facility in 2007, in March 2013, the Harris County Commissioners Court approved revised plans. After the announcement, Commissioner Steve Radack said the pared-down facility would be a great benefit to both the County and city of Houston. “It’s obvious that this is a positive, not only from the standpoint that this gives the city the opportunity to close down their jail, which is not in good shape,” said Radack.

Houston Mayor Annise Parker also highlighted the differences in the new proposal. “What is being asked of the voters this year is fundamentally different than what was asked a few years ago. This is a joint city-council project and the public really appreciates the fact that the city and county are working together closely. This is a good solution that is better for the taxpayers, better for the people who go through the system and better for both the city and county in the long run.”

The new processing center is scheduled to open in 2016, at a cost of $100 million, $70 million of which will be provided by bond sales. The city of Houston will contribute an additional $30 million. The move will also allow Houston to close two of its aging jails, which cost the city roughly $25 million annually.