County jails cost Texas taxpayers hundreds of millions to operate and represent a quarter of most county budgets, constituting the single largest item. In considering the Jail Standards Commission sunset bill on Wednesday, it is important that the Texas House avoid further burdening taxpayers by taking into account the unnecessary costs that could be added by possible amendments.

Specifically, one anticipated amendment that failed to make it as a stand-alone bill (HB 2170) could remove discretion from the Jail Standards Commission regarding staffing ratios and make state law the 1:48 staffing ratio currently used by the commission. This would prevent the commission from granting variances where a larger ratio is compatible with safety. Modernized designs could potentially reduce the number of deputies needed to maintain a safe jail, an approach that would be precluded by this amendment. Because the amendment would require that the county budget be sufficient for a 1:48 ratio, it would invite costly litigation.

This amendment would also require that ratios be calculated for each floor of the jail, as opposed to throughout the jail. This could force many counties to increase the number of jailers. Harris County already pays $30 million in overtime to meet current staffing requirements.

Other failed proposals could be attached as amendments at great cost to taxpayers. For example, HB 1714 would have prevented county officials from contracting with private facilities, even though they are often the most efficient option and the local jail may be full. HB 3247 would preclude counties from contracting with private facilities that lack a collective bargaining agreement. At best, this would raise labor costs; at worst, if an agreement couldn’t be reached, the county would be forced either to find a more expensive way to deal with the inmates or to release dangerous inmates.

These potential amendments are solutions in search of a problem. Texas county jails, including privately operated county jails, are by definition costly to taxpayers, but they can become even more so with unnecessary legislative micromanagement.

– Marc Levin