HOUSTON -- In a budget debate that included discussion of possibly raising Harris County taxes by 2012, ending take-home car privileges for county employees and closing county parks one day each week, Harris County Commissioners agreed to study the idea of handing over the Harris County Detention System to a private company.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack proposed the jail privatization idea as one of several ways for the county to trim its budget. The county’s budget officer told commissioners that, at the present mid-year review, the county has $34 million less to work with than expected and could have as much as $51 million less by the end of the fiscal year.
"And why not go ahead and explore the privatization of the jail? There's a lot of things the private sector can do cheaper than government and I think it's worth studying to see if it's possible to save a lot of money,” said Radack of the more than $200 million budget for the county’s jail system and the more than 1,500 detention officers in control of more than 7,000 inmates.
But the proposal does not have the support of Precinct 2 Commissioner Sylvia Garcia.
"There's so many state laws involved that I don't think those are the kind of things you can delegate, or privatize, so yes, I voted against it,” she said.
Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia cited the same concerns in his cautious opposition to privatizing the county’s detention system. He is constitutionally bound to maintain certain quality standards at the county’s jail facilities and questions how he could continue that control if he is no longer in charge of “private” employees.
“We’re doing some privatizing,” said Garcia of the numerous private vendors hired by the county for support services, “So I'm not against it entirely. But I do have legal obligations that tell me that I just can't deflect my responsibilities."
“That's where it gets, I think, unsure and not sure if it becomes impractical," he said.
More than 50 local, state, and federal detention facilities in Texas are managed by private corporations. The Joe Corley Detention Facility used by Montgomery County, the U.S. Marshals Service, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is under the management of the GEO Group. The Houston Processing Center near Bush Airport is operated by the Corrections Corporation of America under contract with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But the union representing Harris County Jail employees says it “strongly opposes” privatizing the Harris County Detention System, which is part of the largest sheriff’s office in Texas.
“We understand and appreciate that Harris County is facing a budget shortfall, but to replace certified correction officers and certified deputies with private contractors is not in the best interest of the Citizens of this county,” the Harris County Deputies’ Organization said in a written statement. “We are equally confident that there are less essential services in the county budget that could be cut without affecting the law enforcement.”
The Sheriff’s Office instead requested that commissioners consider lifting the hiring freeze that the sheriff says has left more than 300 positions unfilled in the department.