Monitoring Pretrial Reform In Harris County, Texas

PPRI is a member of the court appointed monitor team overseeing a federal consent decree in Harris County, Texas. In March of 2020, Harris County settled a federal class-action lawsuit (ODonnell et al v. Harris County, No. 16-cv-01414, S.D. Tex. Nov. 21, 2019) filed in the Southern District of Texas. The suit alleged that pretrial policies and practices imposed a wealth-based detention system that kept misdemeanor defendants in jail only because they could not afford to pay bail, while those who could pay were quickly released. Professor Brandon L. Garrett of Duke University and Sandra Guerra Thompson of the University of Houston Law Center were appointed by the court to monitor agreed reforms. PPRI joined the team to conduct specialized analyses relating to the costs of transitioning to a constitutionally compliant pretrial bond system.

A major provision of reform requires replacing a misdemeanor pretrial system based on cash or surety bond with one in which most people are released on non-financial conditions without a bond hearing. Other new procedures help people make court appearances and provide holistic defense services to improve success on bond. Stakeholders receive annual trainings and there are regular reports to the public.

Some important findings so far include the following:

  • Since pretrial reform, misdemeanor guilty pleas have declined, and fewer defendants re-offend within a year of arrest, even as more are released into the community while they await trial.
  • Changes in judicial policies have produced a stunning drop in the financial value of misdemeanor bonds set by courts. The total amount asked of defendants for pretrial release has fallen from $135 million in 2015 to $13 million in 2020 – one tenth of the pre-consent decree amount.
  • Defendants paid bond companies over $4.4 million in 2016. But since 2018, bail-bond companies have earned less than $1 million annually on low-level misdemeanor cases.
  • Four of every ten people booked are mentally ill, homeless, or both. Vulnerable populations need to be considered in designing programs that prevent bond failure and recidivism.
  • The one percent of defendants with the longest pretrial jail stays are disproportionately mentally ill or homelessness and have holds, warrants, and/or assaultive charges. Yet, after months in detention, the majority of these cases end in dismissal or acquittal. Future analyses will seek to understand and address barriers to release and resolve these cases more efficiently.

While reform is still underway and the monitorship will extend over seven years, results so far suggest that jurisdictions can implement humane measures that help more people succeed on pretrial release without compromising public safety.