Updated: Aug 10
Supporting Felony Bail Reform Is The Right Thing To Do for Our Community, Our Collective Health and is required under the Constitution
Harris County is in crisis. Most residents know that COVID-19 is still spreading here, with infected residents likely to overwhelm our hospitals. What many may not realize is that we have another, overlapping crisis: Even during the pandemic, the Harris County Jail population is growing. And most of that growth is due to people detained in jail simply because they can’t afford to pay bail.
This situation represents not only a threat to our justice system and the constitutional rights of those incarcerated pretrial, but also to their health and the collective health of our community. Many have been diagnosed with COVID-19. Experts have been warning for months that due to the crowded spaces and lack of soap and sanitizer, jails would become one of the major sites of COVID-19 outbreaks. Further, because of the daily flow of staff and others coming in and out of jails, those outbreaks would spread to the broader community.
After the county initially reduced the jail population to 7,500, it is now climbing at a rate that may put it at 10,000 -- close to its capacity of about 10,500 -- by Labor Day. Right now, the vast majority of people at Harris County Jail are there awaiting trial on felony charges. They have not been convicted of the crime for which they were arrested and are presumed innocent. Most are only there because they don’t have the financial resources required to post bail. Last year, in settling another federal lawsuit, the county eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanor arrestees. But this unjust, discriminatory system continues to destroy lives and communities in felony cases. This must change.
That’s why I support the current lawsuit challenging our felony bail system.
Our cash bail system violates people’s constitutional rights and destroys communities, and the arguments for its continuation don’t withstand scrutiny. We don’t need to use cash bail to make people show up for trial. Nor does cash bail make our community safer. Most people are not actively trying to dodge court dates. Simple text message reminders have been shown to significantly reduce failures to appear.
Importantly, our cash bail system does not guarantee public safety. Almost 70% of Harris County felony arrests are for nonviolent offenses. For these arrestees, specifically those arrested for nonviolent offenses, personal recognizance bonds combined with diligent pretrial supervision and, in some circumstances, bond conditions like GPS and electronic monitoring are generally sufficient to ensure court appearance and community safety. And studies have shown that using cash bail actually increases crime, a finding researchers say is likely the case in Harris County. Further, when New Jersey ended money bail altogether, violent crime decreased 30%, and when Harris County was temporarily stopped from holding most people charged with misdemeanors pretrial in 2018, violent crime dropped by 10%.
This should not be surprising, because bail is incredibly disruptive to individual and community stability that helps prevent crime in the first place. Holding someone in jail for even a day or two, for example, may cause them to lose their job and prevent them from fulfilling family obligations like childcare, destabilizing not only arrestees but their families and those around them.
Being jailed before trial also leads to worse outcomes for those incarcerated. Not only do they have a higher chance of being convicted — partially because people plead guilty in an attempt to get out of jail sooner — but they also receive lengthier prison sentences and a 40% increase in non-bail court fees over those not held pretrial. In other words, those who are too poor to pay bail are often pushed even further into poverty because of our cash bail system.
Finally, in recent years, while Black people comprised about 20% of Harris County’s population, they served over 50% of the nights in jail. At a time of nationwide reckoning with racial injustice, we must confront the deep inequities in our own system. We cannot claim to be trying to confront systemic racism if we do not immediately address the racial impact of our cash bail system.
Our current felony bail system is an impediment to justice on a number of fronts. Now, it’s also an impediment to our collective public health. I urge other elected officials to come together and agree to settle this lawsuit and implement meaningful felony bail reform in Harris County immediately.
Judge, 183rd District Court