Senate Bill 6 Could Contribute to Record Number of Harris County Jail Deaths – Houston Public Media
Kristan Nicole Smith was sentenced to Harris County Jail on April 27 for threatening a person with a gun, court records show.
On May 20, less than a month later, she was found unconscious in her cell. Eight days later, the 38-year-old mother of four was pronounced dead at Ben Taub Hospital.
State records show Kristan’s cause of death is still pending as of Nov. 3 – more than five months after she was pronounced dead – prompting her mother, Deborah Smith, to wonder what happened.
“I don’t know if someone attacked her. I don’t know if she didn’t get her medicine,” she said. “I don’t know what happened to my child.”
Deborah said her daughter had diabetes and, in a phone call from prison, told her she was being bullied by cellmates.
Although she doesn’t know the official cause of death, Deborah said she believes her daughter died because the Harris County Sheriff’s Office was ill-equipped to monitor the ever-growing prison population.
“If you’re running a facility that you can’t even oversee, shut it down,” she said. “If you can’t deal with these people, shut it up.”
This year, the Harris County jail had the highest number of deaths in custody and the highest prison population in more than a decade, according to data from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office website. Kristan Nicole Smith is among at least 21 people who have died this year as the prison’s daily population continues to hover around 10,000 – dangerously close to the facility’s maximum capacity.
According to Jason Spencer, chief of staff for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, the jail’s population problems began in 2017 after damage from Hurricane Harvey closed the county courthouse for nearly a year. year. It marked the start of a backlog of cases that has now reached well over 100,000 cases, which has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and winter storm Uri.
“Throughout this, arrests were still being made and people were being jailed, but cases were not going to trial,” Spencer said. “And so we’ve just seen more and more people being incarcerated in the prison, while the courts are struggling to deal with a backlog of cases. And so it’s gotten to the point where we’re beyond our abilities.”
However, prison reform advocates have argued that overcrowding in the Harris County jail has been exacerbated by the death of Senate Bill 6 – which entered into force in September 2021.
SB 6 – dubbed the Damon Allen Act – was high on Governor Greg Abbott’s agenda during last year’s legislative session. The law prohibits cashless bail for persons charged with a felony or misdemeanor punishable by imprisonment, or charged while released on bail. It also mandates the creation of a public security report for each person brought to prison, which includes a list of any previous criminal records. The intent is for judges to access the information when setting bail.
Critics say the bill kept low-income defendants behind bars and made delays worse by adding extra steps to the booking process in an already overburdened criminal justice system.
“Under SB 6, wealth-based detention is even more entrenched,” said Krishnaveni Gundu, executive director of the Texas Jail Project. “If you don’t have money, you can’t buy your freedom. If you don’t have a way to buy your freedom, you can’t get away with it.”
Kristan Nicole Smith has been charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon – a second-degree felony – and hit with $30,000 bond. Under the new law, she was ineligible to be considered for a public relations duty, a decision that had previously been at the discretion of individual judges.
According to her mother, Kristan was unable to post bond, forcing her to remain in jail – where she lost consciousness and later died in a hospital.
Since the start of the year, the average number of felony defendants inside the Harris County Jail has steadily increased, according to Harris County Jail Online Dashboard. From November, 1stthere was altogether 10,041 people in jail. In January, that number was just over 8,500 people.
Jason Spencer with HCSO also attributes the large population increase to SB 6.
“They’re right. SB 6 has contributed to the backlog we’re seeing at the county jail,” Spencer said. “There are administrative delays that you can attribute to SB 6 as well that are slowing down the process.”
Elizabeth Rossi, director of strategic initiatives at Civil Rights Corps, said the continued delays caused by SB 6 have resulted in a disruption of care for those detained in the prison, particularly those waiting to be booked into the center for Harris County Joint Processing.
“Now that the timelines are so much longer, the harm of being so long without the medication that a person relies on for their health and well-being is really, really big,” Rossi said. “No shower, no change of clothes, no access to a lawyer.”
HSCO data shows that between 2010 and 2020 the highest number of deaths in custody was 15. This changed last year when at least 21 people died in custody. This year’s deaths are comparable and could exceed that number by the end of December, according to Rossi.
Jason Spencer of the HCSO said the level of care provided to inmates was “improving every day” under the leadership of Harris Health, but added that it was “challenging to provide health care to over 10,000 people living in a very confined area, many of whom come to prison with pre-existing health conditions which are very serious.”
In September, the Texas Commission on Jail Standards sent a notice of non-compliance at Harris County and the Sheriff’s Office after an inmate said he was held for more than 48 hours before being booked – which is prohibited by state law. The complaint sparked a state investigation, which found a total of 64 people who remained in holding cells at the jail for more than 48 hours.
In response, the sheriff’s office has made changes that include outsourcing more inmates to other facilities and giving priority to booking for those with medical conditions.
TCJS Executive Director Bryan Wood said the county will need to “continually stay on top of the inmate (jail) population,” especially as the number of people held in jail increases with the county’s overall population. .
However, Spencer of the HCSO said the changes made by the sheriff’s office are unlikely to relieve the prison’s bloated population, as the department is unable to control the total number of defendants in its system.
“There is no action the Harris County Sheriff’s Office can take that would impact the number of people in jail,” Spencer said. “These are decisions that are made in courtrooms.”
In 2020, the Justice Management Institute released a report recommending that the Harris County District Attorney’s Office make “uncomfortable but necessary changes” by dismissing “all non-violent felony cases older than nine months” to alleviate the growing number of cases. The report found that of all the county’s felony cases in 2019, approximately 57% were either dropped or deferred.
In August, DA Kim Ogg told Houston Public Media that backlog reduction is a matter of funding additional prosecutors — a request that has been repeatedly denied by the Harris County Court of Commissioners.
A judge finally lowered bail in Kristan Nicole Smith’s case to $5,000 – three days after her death. As for Deborah Smith, she doubts that conditions will improve in the prison as she tries to find out what happened to her daughter.
“Some changes need to be made there,” she said. “It’s not going to get better. Shut it down.”
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