Harris County Wins $2 Million To Reform Its Criminal Justice System

Yesterday, what seemed like every head-honcho in county and city government and law enforcement gathered to announce that Harris County has won a $2 million grant to reform the local criminal justice system over the next two years.

The grant comes from the MacArthur Foundation, which received over 200 applications for its Safety And Justice Challenge from counties and cities across the country; only 11, including Harris County, made the cut. With the money, Harris County officials say they plan to reduce the local jail population by 20 percent over three years by offering more personal bonds to defendants who are too poor to pay bail and by starting up various diversion programs for non-violent, low-level offenders.

In other words, officials want to stop jailing people who don't pose a public safety threat, who would be better off keeping their jobs and receiving treatment than sitting behind bars. On the flip side, officials also want to stop charging taxpayers for incarcerating those low-level, non-violent people, which Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said they clearly know does not work anyway: Those charged with state jail felonies, mostly drug possession, have a 70 percent recidivism rate in Harris County, Anderson noted. And that's something the county plans to fix with this grant.

"What we may not realize is, if we don't exercise these jail diversion methods, we continue to put an extra tax burden on the people of Harris County who have to support these jail systems," said Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke. "There are other ways we can keep our people safe, respect the Constitution and have a criminal justice system that is fair to all."

Some of the diversion programs are already in place. Back in February, Anderson launched diversion programs for both first-time low-level shoplifters and first-time drug offenders caught with less than four grams of a controlled substance. Instead of going to jail, each completes 90 days and one year of probation respectively and is offered an eight-hour class and substance abuse treatment. Roughly 1,300 people have been diverted from jail in just over two months as a result.

Although these two programs are only open to first-timers, the county will still offer rehab and treatment to repeat low-level drug offenders, third-time theft offenders and fourth-time prostitution offenders in a "re-integration court," which Anderson says is the first of its kind in the state and possibly the country.  “A sober person with a job is someone who we're not going to see in the system again,” Anderson said, rather optimistically. 

The county also plans to do something about the overrepresentation of minorities in the Harris County Jail. For example, 48 percent of people incarcerated are black, despite the fact that black people make up only 18 percent of the county's adult population. To solve that racial disparity issue, the county will hire a “racial and ethnic disparity coordinator,” who will be tasked with reaching out to the community to keep an “open dialogue” and “create transparency.” He or she will also administer implicit racial bias training to law enforcement officials. The county hopes this will reduce average daily jail population by 100 people over the next three years.

Lastly, Harris County judges and magistrates will now be expected to issue personal bonds using a new risk-assessment tool, designed to gauge the likelihood someone will flee or whether the person is a public safety threat. Right now, Harris County judges and magistrates issue personal bonds to just 7 percent of people per year, on average. The majority of people are expected to pay cash bail—whatever amount is listed on the bail schedule, which doesn't take into account anything about a person except for what crime they committed. Perhaps that is why 75 percent of people in the Harris County Jail have not even been convicted of a crime yet, because a large chunk simply cannot pay. Just over half of them are charged with non-violent crimes or misdemeanors, yet for some reason were not given a personal bond.

That was the case for a man who was beaten to death in the jail last week by two other inmates. The man, accused of stealing a guitar, had no violent criminal history, but was not approved for a personal bond, and he could not afford to pay his $3,000 bail. Nevertheless, the county, and thus the taxpayers, still ended up footing the bill for his brief yet fatal 48-hour visit.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn