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What Does a New Sheriff Mean for Harris County?

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While many Harris County residents are in mourning for the nation as a whole, some criminal justice experts say there's reason to be optimistic about a political office closer to home — specifically, Sheriff-Elect Ed Gonzalez.

The Democratic challenger ran on a platform of change, declaring an interest in bail reform and other diversion programs that would potentially curb the jail's consistent overcrowding. Critics claimed that the current sheriff, Ron Hickman, had no real plans — perhaps best illustrated by Hickman's recent request to squeeze nearly 200 additional inmates onto plastic cots.  (Some of those dangerous alleged criminals could wind up being folks like an older couple Hickman personally sought to be charged with stealing campaign signs.)

"In a lot of ways, Sheriff Hickman isolated himself from the larger criminal justice reform debate," Jay Jenkins, an attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, told the Houston Press.

Jenkins added, "Because the sheriff has the keys to the jail, [he] can be the strongest voice for some of these reforms," particularly bail reform. Gonzalez now has an opportunity to "enact policy from his position while also influencing the larger policy debate among the commissioners and the judges and other actors within the criminal justice system," Jenkins said.

Gonzalez would also have the ability to end the enforcement of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's 287g program, which gives jailers the power to identify suspected undocumented immigrants booked into Harris County Jail, Jenkins says. (Hickman said in June he would renew the county's contract with the federal government.)

Gonzalez pulled no punches in a June campaign press release, calling the program "fiscally irresponsible" and "tailor-made for the xenophobic Republican presidential nominee who wants to round up 11 million people and expel them from our country."

Jenkins said: "In a lot of ways, what the county has been waiting for, is a DA or a chief of police or...a sheriff that is truly committed to diversion."

Sandra Guerra Thompson, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, expects that Gonzalez "will have better relations with communities of color in Houston." She cited Hickman's inflammatory statements following the murder of Deputy Darren Goforth.

Thompson added that Gonzalez may have a better shot at reform, given the changes in the District Attorney's Office and judiciary.

"Part of the challenge that the previous sheriff had is that the bail practices of the judges were such that they committed far too many people to jail on bail amounts they couldn't afford," she said.  "And that forced the sheriff to have to house more people that he had room for. That part of the problem of the overcrowding of the jail was really not the sheriff's fault.”

Thompson also said she was "hopeful that we'll see more in terms of therapeutic programs and services to inmates."

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