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HARRIS COUNTY– (September 8, 2022) – Harris County continues to see positive results from the misdemeanor bail reforms implemented over two years ago through the ODonnell Consent Decree.  The independent monitors overseeing Harris County’s historic misdemeanor bail reform filed their fifth report on September 3, 2022.

The report demonstrates a decline in repeat arrest numbers, a significant reduction of racial and ethnic disparities in those who obtain pretrial release, and further evidence of large cost savings to Harris County and to defendants and their families from these reforms.

“Our latest findings describe how the bail reforms under the ODonnell Consent Decree have saved Harris County and residents many millions of dollars, improved the lives of tens of thousands of persons arrested for misdemeanors, and have produced no increase in new offenses by persons arrested for misdemeanors,” said Brandon Garrett, Independent Monitor, ODonnell Consent Decree.

Under this new policy, Harris County has implemented increased constitutional protections for indigent arrestees accused of misdemeanor offenses.  Previously, most misdemeanor arrestees remained incarcerated until their cases were resolved due to an inability to pay bail, which created an unconstitutional racial and ethnic disparity gap.

The consent decree and most recent monitor report addresses misdemeanor crimes only.  The public and local elected officials have understandably sought explanations on the root causes of the increase in certain felony-related crimes, in particular the increase in homicides, as one act of violence is too many.  The report notes public accusations linking homicides to “bail reform.” However, the report cites no evidence that misdemeanor bail reform has led to an increase in homicides.

“There’s a lot of rhetoric that attempts to equate ‘bail reform’ with an increase in crime and associate the idea with undermining law enforcement.  That rhetoric confuses the public.  Misdemeanor bail reform in Harris County began under the ODonnell case and was necessary because individuals charged with low-level misdemeanor offenses were sitting in jail longer than is permitted by the US Constitution—not because they posed a threat to the public, but simply because they could not afford to pay cash bail.  The cash-bail system remains unchanged for felony cases.  Just to clarify, when we say misdemeanor in this context, we are referring to those charged with low-level, non-violent offenses such as trespass and driving with a suspended license.  We are not referring to individuals charged with serious violent offenses like armed robbery or homicide.  This fifth monitor report exemplifies how misdemeanor bail reform is positively impacting public safety in Harris County,” said Deputy Administrator of Justice and Safety, Perrye Turner.  “Fewer people have been re-arrested for misdemeanors following an initial arrest, and crime did not spike under misdemeanor bail reform.  Moreover, it is likely that fewer people have pleaded guilty to crimes they did not commit for the sole purpose of getting out of the Harris County Jail.”

Some key takeaways from the ODonnell Independent Monitor Report include:

  • The bail reforms have saved Harris County and residents many millions of dollars and improved the lives of tens of thousands of persons arrested for misdemeanors.  These large-scale changes have produced no increase in new offenses by persons arrested for misdemeanors
  • Overall, repeat offending by persons arrested for misdemeanors has remained largely stable between 2015 and 2021
  • The number of persons arrested for misdemeanors has steadily declined
  • The number of those arrested for misdemeanors who have new charges filed within one year has also declined

The independent monitors’ report further highlights major consent decree accomplishments.  The county is actively developing an implementation plan to improve court appearances and indigent defense based on research conducted by ideas42 and the National Association for Public Defense.  A public dashboard with ODonnell relevant data is now available.  The county obtained a vendor to administer Rule 9 refresher trainings for all misdemeanor stakeholders.  In addition to an extensive exploration of the secondary consequences of the consent decree protocols authorizing prompt unsecure pretrial release on re-arrests and costs.

The next Monitorship steps include gathering data to permit a more detailed cost analysis; beginning to quantify the cost consequences of policy changes under the Consent Decree on key processes, including arrest, booking, pretrial screening, bond hearings, court settings, and pretrial detention.  Other measures, including prosecution costs, victim services, pretrial supervision, and defendant costs, are still in development.  Finally, the monitorship will continue to encompass data analyses and provide feedback in regular meetings concerning the assembly and validation of data regarding misdemeanor cases.

“Since misdemeanor reform has come into effect, our system is significantly less congested with low-level defendants, racial disparities are decreasing, and our deputies are better able to focus on preventing violent crime,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez. “Today, our jail is beyond capacity because of the number of people jailed on felony-level violent charges. If not for misdemeanor bail reform, we would struggle even more to find space for violent offenders who need to be in jail.”

The monitors’ next federal court report will be submitted on March 3, 2023.  To read the full fifth monitor report, visit the OSJ website here.

Join the conversation.  The Office of Justice and Safety will host the first in-person public meeting on October 7, 2022, at noon, at the Harris County Administration Building, 1001 Preston St., 9th Floor Commissioners’ Courtroom, for independent monitors to present their findings.

The Independent Monitorship: The implementation of the ODonnell Consent Decree in Harris County, Texas — which encompasses Houston and, with nearly 5 million people, is the nation’s third most populous county — governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level misdemeanor offenses.  Duke Law professor Brandon Garrett was appointed independent monitor and directs the seven-year monitoring project that includes ongoing analysis of Harris County data and intensive engagement with stakeholders.  He works closely with deputy monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson, professor of law at the University of Houston Law Center, and with Dr. Dottie Carmichael,  Director of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University.  Dr. Songman Kang of Duke University and Hanyang University (Korea) also plays a crucial role in data analysis for the monitorship.