Harris County Joins The Criminal Justice Reform Movement

May 19, 2016 by

Since 2009, Harris County’s jail population has decreased by roughly 25 percent. While that’s taken nearly seven years, for a jail system that has long been the subject of state and federal investigations, it is a positive.

Along with ten other cities and counties, Harris was awarded a grant to continue their efforts to decrease the jail population. The $2 million grant was awarded by the MacArthur Foundation to help the county build long-term, data-driven strategies to further their initiatives.

It costs roughly $75 per day to house someone in jail and on any given day roughly three quarters of offenders in Harris County jail are there because they can’t make bail.

“Harris County’s over-reliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses has resulted in one of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the U.S. and the world,” said State Sen. Rodney Ellis (D-Houston).

County officials say that with this grant, along with an additional $5.1 million, they aim to reduce the local jail population by 21 percent – or 1,800 inmates – over a three year time period. To do this they are starting to offer more personal bonds for low-income defendants who can’t make bail, and increasing diversion programs for non-violent and low-level offenders.

It costs roughly $75 per day to house someone in jail and on any given day roughly three quarters of offenders in Harris County jail are there because they can’t make bail.

Some of the other reforms they hope to implement are: more staff to speed up dockets and examine daily jail population for long delays, adding an attorney for mental health cases to divert mentally ill offenders to treatment instead of jail, and adding additional courts to cut time from arrest to trial. For first-time low-level offenders they plan to continue to offer diversion programs and for repeat low-level drug offenders, third-time theft offenders, and fourth-time prostitution offenders they are planning a treatment and rehabilitation program.

Black Americans make up 19 percent of the county population but represent half of all felony drug arrests and 66 percent of people incarcerated for felony drug possession. To combat this disproportionate effect the county is also using grant funds to create a Racial and Ethnic Disparity Coordinator, which will assist in facilitating community forums, greater transparency, and training for criminal justice stakeholders on existing disparities in local jails.

This is a huge step in reversing the inequity in the justice system. Encouraging Harris County to become an exemplar of how the system should operate is going to pave the way for local justice systems across the state to embrace these reforms.

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About the Author

Charles operates the Houston office for Empower Texans/Texans for Fiscal Responsibility.