DALLAS – Don’t call Harris County’s $70 million bond proposal a “jail.”

It’s for a “Joint Inmate Processing Center,” (with 552 beds) to be funded jointly by the Texas county and the city of Houston at a combined cost of $100 million.

The county learned its lesson in 2007 when a bond proposal for a county jail and an inmate processing center failed narrowly.

Winning voter approval of general obligation bonds for a jail is notoriously difficult. Thus, many Texas counties and cities have turned to various privatization schemes and other forms of debt that don’t require voter approval.

This time, Harris County is just asking for the inmate processing center, which will allow Houston to close two of its city jails, said Joe Stinebaker, spokesman for Harris County Judge Ed Emmett.

“The city and county have been operating independently in the past,” Stinebaker said. “In most cases, the city goes out, arrests the guy, books him into the city jail, then they move them to the county jail and reprocess him.”

A process that requires 45 minutes of a Houston police officer’s time should take less than half that time with the new center, which eliminates overlap in the city and county booking procedures.

By releasing the patrol officers from bureaucratic procedure, more officers are effectively on the street, Stinebaker said.

“The mayor of Houston, the police chief of Houston -- everybody is in support of this thing,” Stinebaker said.  “I don’t know of any public official who opposes this.”

Houston Mayor Annise Parker said the ballot proposal is “fundamentally different than what was asked a few years ago, which was about adding onto the county jail. This is a joint city-county project, and the public really appreciates the fact that the city and county are working together closely.”

At this point, likely voters appear to favor the inmate processing center, according to recent polls.

“Maybe it’s because we called it a joint inmate processing center as opposed to a jail, but that’s what’s on the ballot,” said Rice University Political Science professor Bob Stein.  “And more importantly, voters support this regardless of their perception of crime.”

Stein conducted polling for Houston stations KHOU and KHUF that showed 58% of respondents in favor of building the processing center, with 21% opposed.

The 2007 proposal for the jail and processing center was defeated, largely because African-Americans voted overwhelmingly against the measure, according to analysis of those results.

“In 2013, although 58% and by margins of 64 and 61 (percent) Anglos and Hispanics support this proposed initiative, African Americans oppose it slightly, 51-49,” Stein said.  “But I think a 58% margin is good; more importantly, there are no organized groups against this. So I think, the stars are aligned for this to pass and pass by a good margin.”

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia told KHOU the center would “take the City of Houston out of the jail business, quit the duplication of operations, save the taxpayers money and get cops back out on the street faster.”

The inmate processing center is one of the lower profile issues on the Nov. 5 ballot that will include the election of the Houston mayor and city council. The Houston city elections are likely to bring out more voters from within the city limits than will vote in the suburbs, officials said.

The most contentious issue on the ballot may be the proposal to issue $217 million of bonds to redevelop the abandoned Houston Astrodome, which sits adjacent to the current stadium for the National Football League Houston Texans, Reliant Stadium.

While the proposed joint inmate processing center would not require a property tax increase to support the debt, the Astrodome would.

“I want to make sure that it doesn’t get caught up in the debate of the Astrodome,” Sheriff Garcia said of the inmate processing center. “This is a measure that isn’t going to cost the taxpayers any money, and it’s really going to improve a lot of services and operations for both the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and the Houston Police Department.”

In Stein’s polling on the Astrodome question, 45% of likely voters would support the bond issue and 35% would oppose it, with 20% undecided.

Support for the “New Dome” appeared stronger in the city of Houston than it was beyond the city limits, even though all of Harris County would pay for the project through property taxes. 

Harris County, the largest in Texas in population, spends more than $2 million a year insuring and maintaining the stadium, which has sat vacant since 2009.

The county has also experienced declining inmate populations, a trend so strong that several jails and prisons throughout the state, both public and private, have closed in the past two years.

“Our jail population has dropped about 20% in the last four years,” Stinebaker said.  “It’s starting to creep back up, but there was a time four years ago when we were shipping inmates to other counties because of crowding.”

Harris County’s current focus is to divert mentally ill inmates to facilities that are better suited to their needs than a traditional jail.

“The largest mental health facility in the state of Texas is the Harris County Jail,” Stinebaker said.

Under a new pilot program approved by the 2013 Texas Legislature, the state will contribute $5 million a year to provide mentally ill inmates in Harris County with medical, social and housing assistance before and after their release from jail. Harris County will provide $5 million a year’s worth of in-kind services. The program’s effectiveness on recidivism will be monitored and the results presented to state officials by the end of 2016.

“It allows Harris County to save millions of dollars by implementing a program that seeks to treat, rather than punish, mental illness in our county,” Emmett said in a prepared statement after passage of the legislation. “If this program is as successful as I expect it to be, it will surely serve as a model for the rest of the state, and perhaps the nation, in years to come.”

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