Harris County voters want fewer people in jail, polling shows

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New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail. 

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

In 2016, nonprofits Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps filed a lawsuit against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system. A federal judge issued a landmark ruling a year later and agreed that Harris County’s bail practices were unconstitutional. In 2019, Harris County officials settled the lawsuit and began to reform the county’s bail system to allow for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants. In 2020, an independent report found that those reforms were successful and more misdemeanor defendants were released from jail without raising the risk of reoffending. 

Despite those efforts, the jail population in Harris County has ballooned since the start of the pandemic due to interruptions to in-person court proceedings, a reluctant District Attorney Kim Ogg, and a backlog of cases that existed before the outbreak, The Appeal reported in January. 

As of Tuesday, 9,000 people are currently being held in Harris County jails. Of those, 7,893 are being held pre-trial.

As the legislature meets, bail reform advocates in the county will have to also contend with Republican lawmakers and Gov. Greg Abbott, who have promised bail reform in the opposite direction. Earlier this month during his “State of the State” address, the governor said one of his top priorities and emergency items this session would be fixing, “a broken bail system that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back onto the streets.” 

Photo: PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP via Getty Images

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