In a press conference yesterday, Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and State Sen. John Whitmire announced an expedited hearing schedule for the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, which will be tasked with investigating jail safety partly in response to high-profile suicides that have occurred in recent months.

According to Patrick, Texas municipal and county jails house upwards of one million people every year–a significant number of which have yet to be convicted of a crime, or taken before a judge. Of this number, Patrick stated, an average of 23 have ended up committing suicide annually in the past few years. However, this average has already been eclipsed in 2015, with 31 suicides to date (29 in county jails, and two in municipal jails).

While acknowledging that this is a “small number” compared to the general population jailed per year, and that most jails perform satisfactorily, Patrick stated that there is room to improve:

“What can we do at the state level to make jails safer, particularly for those with mental health issues? We want to achieve ‘zero tolerance’ [with regard to suicides]. Can we do that?”

In addition to addressing safety standards, Sen. Whitmire also highlighted an opportunity to review various pre-trial practices as well–specifically regarding bail bonds and release procedures–but stressed that regardless which avenue the committee takes, public safety and the safety of law enforcement is a “primary concern.”

Formal hearings in the Senate Criminal Justice Committee are slated to begin in September.

Photo: Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Texas Tribune