Harris County Thinks It Can Reduce Jail Population by Letting Inmates Jot Down Some Phone Numbers

Keeping criminal defendants in jail is expensive. On average it costs around $59 to house one inmate for one day, according to the state Commission on Jail Standards. It's estimated Harris County spends $300,000-plus each day incarcerating people who are waiting for their court appearance. While the Harris County jail has moved past its overcrowded heydays, it still houses anywhere between 8,500 and 9,000 inmates at any given time.

Advocates who want to safely lower incarceration rates point out that many people have landed in jail because of untreated mental illness or are locked up for offenses that are nonviolent in nature. They argue that steps like better funding the state's dismal mental health care system or reforming the bond process, particularly for nonviolent offenders, could go a long way.

At this week's meeting of the local Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Harris County officials offered another plan they hope might reduce the jail population: Let inmates jot down a few numbers before you take away their cell phones.

Here's how the 90-day "pilot program" will work, according to a report in today's Chron:

Deputies on Wednesday outlined a pilot program they hope will help lower the jail population by letting detainees copy five numbers out of their phone before it is sealed in a bag with the rest of their valuables.

"Hopefully they'll make a call to a family member or a friend and get a bonding company and get bailed out," said Deputy Chief Fred Brown. "This will be a positive, as far as getting people out on bond."

The idea is a simple one: none of us have to memorize anyone's phone number anymore because of these marvelous little pocket computers called smart phones. If, upon booking, inmates just had access to some of the numbers saved in their phone, they might be able to find someone who can help them post bond. Which means the county no longer has to pay to put them up in the world's worst hotel.

As if it's a societal over-reliance on cell phones that's keeping people from bonding out, not the bond process itself.

When you're arrested in Harris County and charged with a crime, you're given a court date and a bond amount, which falls within a preset range depending on the crime. If you can fork over that amount in cash, you can leave (bail out), and the county will give you that money back, minus a small administrative fee, when you show up for your court date.

Those who can't pay up in full and in cash have to go through a bondsman, who charges you a fee (typically somewhere around 10 percent of the bond amount) that you'll never get back and promises to pay the county the whole bond if you skip out on your court date (hence people like this guy).

Or, if a judge determines you're not a flight risk, you might get what's called a personal recognizance bond (or PR bond), which means you'll be released from jail without financial obligation. This is the mechanism most likely to help poor defendants accused of nonviolent or drug crimes.

And whether a defendant is incarcerated or out on bond can have a huge impact on what happens in a case.

Gerald Wheeler, the former director of Harris County pretrial services, and attorney Gerald Fry have been studying the cases of some 6,500 defendants charged in Harris County between January 2012 and June 2013, comparing case and sentencing outcomes for defendants who could and couldn't afford bond. They started releasing their preliminary findings in 2013 and updated their report, which they've dubbed "Project Orange Jumpsuit," last year.

So far, the findings have been that people locked up pretrial were less likely to get deferred adjudication or probation. Locked up defendants were also about half as likely to have their charges dismissed as those who got out on bond. Detained defendants also faced tougher sentences if convicted than their bonded counterparts.

And here's the kicker: while the most other major American cities hand out PR bonds to about a quarter of defendants who go through the system, according to Project Orange Jumpsuit, in Harris County the practice was almost non-existent. In 2012, Harris County only gave PR bonds to 1 percent of felony arrests and 7 percent of misdemeanor arrests.

While giving people who are arrested access to phone numbers that are already in their phones is a common sense, overdue fix, it should hardly count as a "pilot program" to help lower the jail population (as the Chron notes in its story, other agencies, from the U.S. Marshals to Galveston County, already do it). And let's not pretend it will do much to change the current reality -- that rich defendants continue to bail themselves out, poorer defendants still struggle to scrounge up enough money to pay a bondsman and Harris County judges shy away from PR bonds.

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Michael Barajas
Contact: Michael Barajas