Harris County’s misdemeanor bail reform efforts recently got a hat tip from the Prison Policy Initiative, a non-profit, non-partisan national advocacy group that focuses on mass criminalization.
Since 2019, the state’s largest county has taken aim at the money bail system that incarcerated people without a trial and which affected low-income residents the most. Defendants were forced to stay in jail unless they could pay bail, and oftentimes they would plead guilty just to minimize further disruption and damages to their livelihood.
A recent report of the misdemeanor bail reform efforts in Harris County by researchers at Duke, University of Houston and Texas A&M shows the reforms are working, as highlighted by the Prison Policy Initiative:
Overall, the county has seen a sharp decline in the number of people charged with misdemeanors and detained without trial, fewer misdemeanor convictions, and shorter periods of jail time.
The reforms taken by the county (explained in detail on page four of the report) include releasing most people arrested for misdemeanors unless they are a public safety concern, and requiring defense attorneys at bail hearings. The county also made efforts to increase the frequency that defendants appear in court and for hearings with a system of text, email and notifications. And more reforms assisted by the county budget are on their way.
These reforms stem from a major settlement in 2019 that forced the county to make changes after a federal court ruled that the county’s cash bail system was unconstitutional. A shift in local politics around the same time also saw the reforms take on a larger importance.
Wanda Bertram, a criminal justice reform advocate and spokesperson with the Prison Policy Initiative, said Harris County’s success in bail reform is ironic given the state legislature’s efforts to block such reforms.
“Texas is a state where the governor recently signed a bill that blocks some bail reform and pretrial reform, and yet Harris County has also produced some of the most powerful evidence that bail reform is safe and just,” Bertram said.
Harris County has undertaken bail reform without any negative effects to public safety, and has also lowered the number misdemeanor convictions by removing the guilty plea incentive that comes with cash bail, Bertram said.
Last year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 6 into law, requiring cash bail for those accused of a violent crime. Opponents of the new law argue the measure will not impact public safety because violent offenders will still be able to pay their way out of jail.
In Texas, prison and jail inceratoration rates began increasing in the 1970s and have only recently begun to decline, according to data from the Prison Policy Initiative.
This is because lawmakers and local leaders adopted a “tough on crime” approach that focused on mass incarceration.
“Really what the tough-on-crime program was all about was puting working class people, low-income people behind bars as much as possible,” Bertram said. “And if you want to do that, the easiest way to ensure people are locked up and they can’t leave is to institute or expand money bail.”
“So I think that’s the major thing I think Harris County is getting right, it’s reversing decades of politicking that were designed cynically to warehouse poor people with no public safety benefit,” Bertram said.
Other counties, cities and states have begun to make changes to the cash bail system without federal court intervention. In 2018, California became the first state to completely eliminate cash bail and other states like New Jersey and New York have also followed suit with changes. Not all these efforts have been perfect — some advocates have been concerned with racial inequities with the decision-making system to replace cash bail — but overall unjust pretrial detention and jail populations have decreased after such reforms were taken.
Other problems tying criminal justice to income are still pervasive, such as fines and fees. Working to solve social problems like poverty or a lack of healthcare are also major factors that would aid criminal justice reform.
“Really, our entire system of local incarceration is largely set up to manage the results of austerity, and wanting the government to subsist on a tax structure that mostly burdens poor people,” Bertram said. “Anything that chips away at that status quo is going to be helpful.”