As voters consider a $70 million bond initiative to fund part of a city-county inmate processing center, Harris County is hurrying to implement a jail computer system that officials say would have to be in place for the proposed facility to function effectively.

The so-called "jail management system," which the Sheriff's Office hopes will be up and running at least a year before the processing center would open, will allow the jail to track the tens of thousands of inmates it books every year electronically, in one main system, rather than with paper

and stand-alone databases.

"We process inmates primarily using stacks of paper," said Capt. Greg Summerlin, who helped write the request for proposals seeking vendors to operate the system.

'It's very inefficient'

That means that when an inmate's paperwork is stuck in a stack at the fingerprinting station and he or she needs to be seen in court, pre-trial services, or the medical ward, the inmate -- and everyone else -- has to wait.

"It's very inefficient, it's very cumbersome," Summerlin said.

Several vendors have responded to the request, Summerlin said, and staff hopes to recommend one to Harris County Commissioners Court for approval before the end of the year.

Under the new electronic system, the paper index cards currently used to keep track of inmates will go away.

While the system will boost efficiency at the jail's existing processing or booking center, which has been operating over capacity for years, Summerlin said the functionality of the new joint processing center would depend on the system because it is designed to be open and flexible, allowing inmates to bypass certain time-consuming processes.

County staff compare the design of the proposed facility to an airport, with a central seating area ringed by pre-trial, medical, social and mental health services.

As one of Sheriff Adrian Garcia's chiefs put it during a recent meeting: If voters approve the bond "and we don't have that (jail management system) in place, it's not going to benefit us because it's still going to be paper driven and it's not going to accomplish the goal that we hope it will accomplish."

Because of that, Garcia said, "We've got to get that operational as quickly as possible."

State's largest lockup

The county jail -- the state's largest lockup -- currently books about 125,000 inmates a year, about half transferred from the two city jails.

That number would increase if voters approve the proposed $100 million processing center, which the city of Houston would contribute $30 million to build, because it would allow the city to shutter its aging jails. Those city lockups hold an additional 40,000 to 45,000 inmates a year who are never transferred to the county jail because their charges are not serious enough.

"If you try to do that volume with all paper, it's really going to be cumbersome," Summerlin said.

Unlike the other bond issue on the ballot to revamp the Astrodome, officials say the processing center would not require an increase to the property tax rate.

A recent poll suggested strong voter support for the project. Voters, however, rejected a similar, but far more expensive, proposal in 2007.

Three years to complete

Officials estimated the processing center would take about three years to complete.

Asked whether there is concern about the jail management system rolling out on time, Summerlin said they are on track to select a vendor before the end of the year and that the system should go live within 12 to 18 months after a contract is signed early next year. A review committee is overseeing the implementation of the system, he said.

(c) 2013 McClatchy News Service