Criminal JusticeLocal NewsDistrict Attorney’s Report Ties Harris County’s Rise in Crime to Bail Reform

A new report from District Attorney Kim Ogg says that bail reform has led to declining community safety and disintegration of the purpose of bail reform.
September 3, 2021
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Since implementing bond reform, the number of criminal defendants who re-offend after release on bail in Harris County has skyrocketed, and both bond forfeitures and crime rates have increased according to a new report from District Attorney Kim Ogg.

The 60-page document on “Bail, Crime & Public Safety” provides statistics and analysis of county trends since 2015 and sharply criticizes previous reports from the county’s Justice Administration Department (JAD) and a monitoring group appointed after the settlement of a federal lawsuit known as ODonnell.

Among the findings, the district attorney reports that the number of suspects on bond charged with new offenses in the county has catapulted from 6,344 in 2015 to 13,160 in 2020, and the most recently available data indicates there have already been 18,820 cases this year.

If trends continue, the district attorney’s analysis projects there will be 23,760 such cases by year’s end, but also notes that individuals on bond are committing new offenses sooner after release than before the 2019 reforms, a factor that impacts public safety.

“Even if the recidivism rate remained the same, if recidivists re-offended more quickly, communities would experience that as an increase in criminality,” reads the report.

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Between 2015 and 2019, the number of defendants who re-offended within a year rose 95 percent, and those who re-offended within 90 days rose 139 percent.

In addition, the overall bond forfeiture rate in the county has increased by 50 percent since the implementation of bond reform, but the district attorney notes the statistics may be further skewed since judges have also been less likely to revoke bond since 2019.

Ultimately, the lenient approach to bail setting correlates with rising crime in the county. Monthly homicides were trending downward in 2015 but began trending upward again after bail reform in 2019 and before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The district attorney also says that every violent crime in Houston showed an increase in monthly offenses following the implementation of bond reforms in February of 2019, and all but one category of violent crime has continued to trend upward since then.

“This report confirms the experiences of prosecutors, police and crime victims. ‘Bail reform,’ as presently practiced in some Harris County courts, will continue to be a driving factor in the crime crisis gripping our community,” wrote Ogg.

The district attorney’s office says it used the same data set as that in reports provided earlier this year by the ODonnell monitor and JAD that downplayed negative effects of bond reform, but says those groups skewed the data by assuming reforms had only applied to misdemeanors. 

While agreeing that only misdemeanor bail has been “formally” reformed by the ODonnell lawsuit and adoption of amended “Rule 9” governing bonds in the county, the district attorney notes that in 2019 newly elected judges in Harris County began applying lenient bail policies to felony cases as well.

In 2017 there were only 35 felony cases with bail set at $100 or less, but by 2020 the number rose to 2,080 cases: a 59-fold increase. 

Ogg cites other ways the ODonnell monitor skewed results.  In one example the monitor considered a person arrested on four separate occasions within a year as only one repeat offense instead of three repeat offenses. In addition, the monitor failed to exclude cases in which the defendant was not charged with a crime, not apprehended, or bond was not applicable because the defendant was already in jail. 

“Contrary to the sanguine picture of the effects of bail reform in Harris County, bail reform is associated with more crime, higher criminal recidivism rates, and more bond failures,” the district attorney writes.

In an accompanying letter to commissioners, Ogg reaffirmed her position that “no person should be held in jail just because they are poor,” and that public safety should always be properly considered before anyone is released on bond. 

Earlier this week, the Texas legislature passed a reform bill that prohibits personal recognizance (PR) bonds for some violent crimes and repeat offenders.  

Ogg has often expressed frustration with the county’s refusal to provide additional prosecutors to process criminal cases even while expanding the courts. The county has also shifted public safety funding away from the district attorney and the eight county constables in favor of funding interventions managed by the public health department.

After Democrat Lina Hidalgo became county judge in 2019, the court created JAD and appointed Jim Bethke director, but sources familiar with the matter say Bethke recently resigned. Bethke was not available to answer the commissioner’s questions at the most recent public meeting on August 24.

Neither JAD nor Hidalgo have responded to media requests for comment on the district attorney’s new report.

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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.