Most days, De’Andra Bolar-Phlegm visits her 82-year-old father, Arthur, at a Houston-area hospital where he lies in a comatose state following a stroke.
Also in attendance: a Harris County sheriff’s deputy who sits outside the door watching over the octogenarian and murder defendant.
For more than a year and a half, Arthur Bolar has been in the custody of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, accused of fatally hitting 67-year-old James Lee Francis with a Ford F-150 pick-up truck. Bolar has spent much of that time hospitalized despite recent efforts by his daughter to move him to hospice care.
“It’s hard to see someone suffering, fighting for their life like that,” Bolar-Phlegm said.
Sheriff’s officials say Bolar’s case is one of dozens that warrant further review by prosecutors, defense lawyers and judges in Harris County, where defendants often spend lengthy stays in the region’s largest and most dangerous jail.
In recent months, sheriff’s officials have been “engaging the courts” on 123 incarcerated people who they believe could be moved to another setting without threatening public safety, said Carla Manuel, the sheriff’s office director of detention performance and efficiency. About three-quarters of the group suffers from medical issues, such as dementia or intellectual disabilities. Three are charged with murder.
For sheriff’s officials, who run the Harris County Jail, any reprieves given to the nearly 125 incarcerated people would help alleviate multiple issues.
A reduction in the jail population, which typically hovers around 9,000 people, would allow an understaffed jail unit to focus on other pressing issues identified by regulators. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards found in August that the Harris County Jail remains short-staffed, while current employees too often fail to properly monitor incarcerated people and deliver timely medical care.
Moving some incarcerated people with serious health conditions out of jail custody also could provide financial relief to the county, which shoulders some medical costs. The cost to house and monitor a healthy person totals about $120 per day, an amount that goes up “astronomically” for those who need medical care and one-on-one attention from deputies, Harris County Sheriff’s Office Chief of Staff Jason Spencer said. Spencer said he didn’t have any information about the medical costs for Bolar’s care.
“We’re asking the people involved in these cases to take a good look at them, and maybe their circumstances have changed since their bail was initially set, and consider whether jail is the ideal place for that person to await trial,” Spencer said.
The push arrives as Harris County continues to struggle with court backlogs that often leave people in jail for months — and sometimes years.
People currently in the jail have been there for an average of 192 days, according to an online county dashboard that shows data trends at the jail. Sheriff’s officials added that murder defendants log an average of 517 days incarcerated before they’re released or sent to prison. No state agency collects data on the average jail stay in Texas.
While Harris County has made progress in recent months toward reducing the court backlog, persistent problems throughout the criminal justice system still lead to drawn-out jail stays for incarcerated people who can’t post bond. The problems include staffing and management issues at the district attorney’s office, long waits for processing of forensic evidence, judges frequently resetting court cases and defense lawyers taking on too many cases.
As a backstop, sheriff’s officials created the Detention Performance and Efficiency Department this year to track cases more closely. Members of the unit identify instances where complex cases have lagged or incarcerated people are good candidates for release into somebody else’s custody, such as a treatment facility.
Manuel said her department has facilitated meetings where prosecutors and defense lawyers have agreed to lower bail conditions for defendants charged with crimes other than murder.
“In these situations, we always address the court, we inform them what’s happening with the inmate and challenges we’re experiencing on the medical side,” Manuel said.
Murray Newman, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, said the local defense bar would welcome the sheriff’s office advocacy. However, he said defense lawyers sharing clients’ medical conditions in court “doesn’t really ring too many compassion bells in prosecutors or judges.”
“At the end of the day, you got to get that past the prosecutors — and even with them agreeing, sometimes you’ll deal with a judge who exhibits zero compassion,” Newman said.
A Harris County District Attorney’s Office spokesperson declined to comment on efforts to release more incarcerated people with major medical issues, such as Bolar.
In Bolar’s case, sheriff’s officials alerted lawyers to his grave medical condition, identifying alternative options like hospice care. A measure of progress arrived Tuesday, when a Harris County judge lowered Bolar’s bail from $60,000 to $20,000 — increasing the odds that his family will get him moved to hospice.
“I think the courts have a very difficult time weighing public safety — and of course, the families wanting justice,” Manuel said.