Harris County should be proud of bail reform package [Opinion]

Harris County agreed to long-overdue changes to its misdemeanor bail system, voting this week to approve a Consent Decree and Settlement Agreement that, if approved by the federal court, will transform the county’s misdemeanor bail practices. We support this settlement because it is an important step toward dismantling a racist criminal legal system that has devastated low-income families of color for decades.

Harris County’s bail system has long been in need of systemic reform. Before the lawsuit was filed, the county routinely detained tens of thousands of people every year, charged only with misdemeanors, for days or weeks solely because they could not afford to pay small amounts of cash. The vast majority of people who were still in jail when their cases resolved — 84 percent — pleaded guilty, and they did so in a median of 3.2 days. Most people who pleaded guilty were then released within a day of conviction — a system that Chief Judge Rosenthal described aptly as “sentence first, conviction after.”

What this means is, under Harris County’s old bail regime, people arrested — who were disproportionately from communities of color — would plead guilty in order to be released from jail more quickly. Many did this as a matter of survival, because the collateral effects of being detained for any amount of time are numerous: lost wages, lost jobs, missed appointments, the inability to care for dependents, and potential complications for immigration.

Many other people managed to scrape together money from family and friends, or diverted money from the most basic necessities, to make nonrefundable payments to the commercial bail industry so that they could return to their homes, jobs, children, and communities. This system — which kept thousands charged with misdemeanors in cages and caused many others to fall deeper into poverty — is finally coming to an end.

If the settlement is approved by the federal court, the county must begin implementing systemic reforms that will help ensure the people who come through the county’s system are treated with dignity — not as another guilty plea to be processed. The reforms are not just required by the Constitution and basic decency, but they will also save the county money, improve safety, and improve court appearance. The reforms will also prevent the commercial bail industry from profiting off the backs of some of the poorest and most disenfranchised people in our communities.

This is an enormous step forward for criminal justice reform in our county and will help thousands of families every year while ensuring that we are not funneling people into a cycle of poverty and incarceration. It is also a crucial step away from a criminal justice system that has by design and in practice devastated communities of color here in Harris County, in Texas, and around the country.

The policy changes have already dramatically increased the number of people who are released pre-trial without having to pay any money upfront. Additional innovative reforms will ensure the county invests in evidence-based practices that have been proven to promote court appearance: such as a reminder system, clear notification forms, and transparent court policies about appearing in court. The county will also study the causes of nonappearance in Harris County and commit $850,000 per year for seven years to funding systems and logistics to mitigate those causes. While the study is ongoing, the county will provide $250,000 per year to assist people in getting to court. These reforms will restore a degree of humanity to a system that has long destroyed lives.

The consent decree will also require the county to track and report data and meet regularly with the community. These steps are crucial to ensuring transparency and accountability — two things that have been glaringly missing from the pretrial system in Harris County.

This agreement would not have been possible without communities in Harris County coming together to demand these changes. In fact, the 2016 and 2018 election—which resulted in the election of a new sheriff, new district attorney, new commissioner, new county judge and new misdemeanor judges — laid the groundwork for the reforms to the county’s pre-trial system.

However, though these new policies make Harris County a leader in the national bail reform conversation, our work is far from over. Counties across Texas retain many of the same antiquated and deeply harmful practices that Harris County has now done away with —and the felony system in Harris County still relies on access to cash to make release and detention decisions.

We will continue to forge ahead on these fronts, striving to achieve a vision for ensuring that the criminal justice system does not cripple our communities, and that our government invests in systems and supports that allow our communities to flourish.

Moreno is communications director for the Texas Organizing Project.

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