In July, county commissioners agreed to settle the lawsuit and submitted to the judge the already-implemented changes to bail decisions — as well as other changes like reminding people of their court appearances and allowing defendants to reschedule. The judge approved the settlement in November, and independent experts were appointed in March to monitor the system for seven years.
As other bail reform lawsuits and legislation target felony cases, some opponents fear the increased releases will free people who would then commit more crimes.
Police officials and union leaders have recently pointed to people released from jail before trial on felony-level charges who then are suspected of committing new violent crimes, including murder. By Wednesday afternoon, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Houston Police Officers’ Union President Joe Gamaldi did not respond to questions asked Tuesday about the report.
Harris County’s new bail system only targets misdemeanor crimes, where the longest sentence possible if convicted is a year. Harris County also allows inmates with good conduct to trim two-thirds of their sentence, meaning they could be released in four months on a year sentence. Garrett said the fear of people released committing new crimes is common among changing bail systems but that the data so far doesn’t support it.
“Those fears haven’t come to pass in other jurisdictions as well,” he said. “Sometimes people point to particular anecdotes. … Anecdotes can be powerful, but they can also be quite misleading.”
A spokesperson for the Harris County district attorney’s office seemingly took issue with the report’s methodology behind the finding that recidivism had not increased, noting it did not look specifically at new crimes committed by people out of jail on bond.
“As they note in their report … they lack adequate data to examine the effectiveness of supervision of individuals released on bond, and that they intend to return to this in their next report on their ongoing analysis,” said spokesperson Dane Schiller.
The monitors said in the report that their data tracked new crimes committed within a year by all people charged with a misdemeanor, including those released from jail because they were not guilty or if they were convicted and had already served their time or were on probation.
Judge Darrell Jordan, who presides over a Harris County misdemeanor court and has advocated for the changes, said the new report brings evidence against reform opposition.
“What the report shows is that everything the naysayers are saying was fear mongering,” he said. “Money doesn’t make people safer.”
Still unaddressed in the report is the concern that people released automatically will not show up for court appearances. Bail bond companies note that they keep track of their clients to ensure court appearances, and those who pay the total cash bond amount upfront will only be reimbursed if they show up to court. Garrett said the monitors don’t have the data on appearances yet, and it will be a major topic for future reporting. Jordan said a large majority of people in his courtroom show up for hearings.
Sandra Guerra Thompson, the deputy court monitor and a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said more practices are still being implemented — partially delayed by the pandemic — to help increase court appearances. They include giving paperwork in both Spanish and English to those being released that details the next steps in their proceedings and sending text-message reminders. Jordan said a website is being built to allow people to reschedule their court appearances online.
“Setting people up for success in terms of their legal obligations is an important part of the consent decree,” Guerra Thompson said, referencing the order that followed the settlement.
The report highlighted less concrete changes in the system as well. Before, bond decisions were made in a matter of seconds based on a preset schedule; now, those who don’t qualify for automatic release have hearings that last several minutes, with a public defender present, according to the report.
“I hope that people around the state and around the country will take a look at this report and study it and see that they can make a difference in their community, one that is better for the taxpayers and better as far as it relates to safety,” Jordan said.
Originally posted on the Texas Tribune website.