New Funding Will Help Support Initiatives Aimed at Safely Reducing Harris County’s Jail Population and Advancing Racial Equity
HARRIS COUNTY (April 28, 2021) – Harris County is the recipient of a $500,000 grant by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to continue building on efforts in collaboration with local leaders and the community to rethink the local criminal justice system, safely reduce Harris County’s jail population, and eliminate racial inequities. The grant brings the Foundation’s total investment in Harris County to $4.6 million to date, and is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge, a $252 million national initiative to reduce over-incarceration and advance racial equity in local criminal justice systems by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails.
The Safety and Justice Challenge is supporting local leaders, individuals directly and most impacted by the justice system, and the broader community in Harris County and across the country who are determined to address one of the greatest drivers of over-incarceration in America – the misuse and overuse of jails. Harris County was first selected to join the Safety and Justice Challenge Network in 2016 and has since used the resources and funding provided by the initiative to implement evidence-based solutions. The grant will be managed by the Harris County Justice Administration Department.
These solutions included instituting sweeping reforms to pretrial services to enhance data-driven decision making with the implementation of the public safety assessment risk tool, creating two positions that focused on reducing racial and ethnic inequities in the justice system, and community engagement, a position embedded in the sheriff’s office to actively manage the jail population, and a docket focused on low-level drug possession cases. As a result, the pretrial supervision caseload for Pretrial Services has increased to over 20,000 clients, the Sheriff’s Office released a public portal that provides a regular account of the in-custody jail population, reduced the pretrial detainee population of possession of a controlled substance <4 grams from 20% to 9% of the daily population and the time to disposition dropped from an average of 137 days to 40 days, piloting three micro community grants aimed at enabling community organizations to be part of the solutions, and reinstated the Racial and Ethnic Equity Committee to lead the work.
This new round of funding will provide the Harris County Justice Administration Department and partners with continued support and expert technical assistance to strengthen and expand strategies that address the main drivers, and resulting inequities, of local jail incarceration.
“The Safety and Justice Challenge has been crucial to our efforts to reduce our reliance on the criminal legal system and eliminate unnecessary incarceration in Harris County, especially with the added safety concerns at our jail during the COVID-19 pandemic. This additional support will help us continue our efforts to reimagine public safety and criminal justice so that all communities are safe and able to thrive.” – said Commissioner Rodney Ellis.
Additionally, building on Harris County’s progress to date is especially critical as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and racial injustices against Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color reinforce the need to transform how the system operates. We were positioned to act quickly because of the In Custody Population Manager position that had been embedded in the Sheriff’s Office since October 2018. She was able to build on her relationships with the court and justice agencies to implement a policy to increase efficiencies in processing defendants booked solely on parole warrants and worked with judges to provide lists of vulnerable populations and identifying candidates for release. In addition, the District Court judge’s felony bail ongoing work with the Vera Institute enabled them to quickly implement a General Order Bond Policy that expedited the release of people arrested and charged with certain non-violent felony offenses. To support these GOB Releases, SJC funds were used for case management, hotel vouchers, and transportation upon release. It is also important to note, the Harris County Sheriff and his medical staff have done an outstanding job mitigating the spread of COVID-19 inside the jail. The HCSO implemented an aggressive testing program combined with stringent quarantines upon entry into the jail, mandatory mask-wearing, and hygiene practices that prevented the jail from becoming a COVID-19 hotspot.
“The strategies we implemented in partnership with the MacArthur Foundation played a big role in helping the Harris County Jail avoid a potentially catastrophic overcrowding situation during the pandemic,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “At a time when our criminal courts were forced to halt jury trials and delay hearings, we significantly decreased the number of people booked into jail for minor, non-violent offenses and instead diverted them to the services they need to get their lives back on track. We are grateful for the MacArthur Foundation’s investment in making Harris County safer for everyone.”
In partnership with the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Sheriff’s Office, Criminal District Courts, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Community Supervision and Corrections Department, District Clerk’s Office, The Harris Center for Mental Health & IDD, and the Justice Administration Department have developed a comprehensive plan for additional strategies and initiatives over the next two years to invest in a safer, more effective, and more equitable system. These include: Collaborating with a consultant to conduct comprehensive reporting of racial and ethnic disparities across all criminal justice system decision points, including identifying the root causes of the disparities and policy recommendations to reduce and eliminate disparities; Increase funding for micro-grants to fund community organizations to enhance their voice and capacity to provide direct services; and Expand supported pre-trial release opportunities for young adult felony offenders that connect them to community-based organizations and supportive services.
More than five years after its public launch, the Safety and Justice Challenge has grown into a collaborative of 51 jurisdictions in 32 states modeling and inspiring reforms to create more fair, just, and equitable local justice systems across the country.
“Now more than ever, we must confront the devastating impacts of mass incarceration by a system that over-polices and over-incarcerates Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color,” said Laurie Garduque, MacArthur Foundation’s Director of Criminal Justice. “Over the past five years, the Safety and Justice Challenge has safely reduced the ineffective and harmful use of jails, while learning that jail population reduction alone does not undo the racial inequities perpetuated by an unjust system and our nation’s history of systemic racism. We are committed to supporting cities and counties as they reimagine a definition of safety that is inclusive of all communities and makes meaningful progress towards our goal of ending racial and ethnic disparities in jails.”
Several of the nation's leading criminal justice organizations will continue to provide technical assistance and counsel to Justice Administration Department, Harris County partners, and the other jurisdictions involved in the Safety and Justice Challenge. These include the Center for Court Innovation, Everyday Democracy, Nexus Community Partners, the Institute for State and Local Governance at the City University of New York, JFA Institute, the Justice Management Institute, Justice System Partners, the Pretrial Justice Institute, Policy Research, Inc., the Vera Institute of Justice, the W. Haywood Burns Institute, Urban Institute, and Bennett Midland.
More information about the work underway in Harris County can be found on https://jad.harriscountytx.gov/ as well as on www.SafetyandJusticeChallenge.org.
About the MacArthur Foundation The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports creative people, effective institutions, and influential networks building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. MacArthur is placing a few big bets that truly significant progress is possible on some of the world’s most pressing social challenges, including advancing global climate solutions, decreasing nuclear risk, promoting local justice reform in the U.S., and reducing corruption in Africa’s most populous country, Nigeria. In addition to the MacArthur Fellows Program and the global 100&Change competition, the Foundation continues its historic commitments to the role of journalism in a responsive democracy as well as the vitality of our headquarters city, Chicago. More information about the Foundation’s criminal justice reform work can be found at www.macfound.org/criminaljustice.