“After one year of our work, we are confident that the misdemeanor bail reforms in Harris County are being implemented successfully and having a positive impact on the community,” said Monitor Brandon Garrett, a Duke University Law professor at the Wilson Center for Science and Justice.
Although the monitors acknowledge that the region is experiencing a surge in violent crime rates, during a by-invitation Zoom press conference last week, Garrett said there was no connection to misdemeanor bail reform policy in Harris County.
“The bail reform that has happened in Harris County is only in misdemeanor cases,” Garrett explained. “But for other types of cases, felony cases, there hasn’t been any change.”
In 2019, a federal court judge approved terms of a settlement in ODonnell v. Harris County, a years-long lawsuit over the county’s misdemeanor bail policy based on the case of a woman who was held two days in jail because she could not post bail set at $2,500 for driving with a suspended license.
As the ODonnell case shuttled back and forth between the federal judge and the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, the county adopted reforms known as “Rule 9” and invested in a risk-assessment tool to shape policy for release of suspects, and continued to negotiate settlement terms, but after the 2018 elections shifted control to Democrats on the commissioners court, the county dropped the appeal and accepted a consent decree adhering to all plaintiff requests.
Garrett and other monitor partners began collecting data for Harris County in March of 2020, and the report unveiled Wednesday notes that there has been a large reduction in the use of cash bail in misdemeanor cases, a reduction in misdemeanor case filings, and an overall decline in pretrial jail days for most misdemeanor defendants.
Although the settlement does not directly apply to felony bond policies, elected judges and appointed magistrates in the county have been repeatedly in the news over the past two years due to frequent issuance of low bonds and personal recognizance (PR) bonds for felony suspects.
In some cases, suspects released in these cases have been re-arrested as murder suspects and according to Crime Stoppers Victims Advocate Andy Kahan, there have now been at least 97 persons murdered for which suspects were released on multiple felony and PR bonds.
During the virtual press conference last week Harris County Bail Bondsman Association President Mario Garza noted that he had been to jail six times in his life and carried the perspectives of both a criminal suspect and a part of the criminal justice system.
Garza asked monitors about pretrial services reports indicating that levels of revoked misdemeanor bonds jumped from 22 percent in 2019 to 90 percent in 2020, but Deputy Monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center said she could not talk about that issue off the top of her head.
Prior to the approval of the ODonnell settlement, District Attorney Kim Ogg expressed support for misdemeanor bail reforms but also warned that some aspects of bail policy were already leading to dramatic increases in non-appearance. She also cited cases with disastrous outcomes such as that of Alex Guajardo, who was repeatedly released on general order and PR bonds for DWI charges as well as a domestic violence assault charge before allegedly murdering his wife and her unborn child.
During the press conference, the monitor did acknowledge that some crimes were on the rise but were not related to misdemeanor bail policy. The county’s Justice Administration Department (JAD) has noted that murders and aggravated assaults in Harris County are up by 43 and 33 percent respectively but asserts that this is a national trend and therefore cannot be attributed to local or state policy.
JAD refers to a recent survey that found rising homicide rates in 29 of 34 cities across the nation, these other jurisdictions either did not implement misdemeanor bail reforms or did so “at different times,” and so those rises cannot be related to any reforms.
That survey, however, from the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice also reports that New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago “accounted for fully 40 percent” of additional people killed in 2020. While statewide bail reform has been put on hold in California, New York and Chicago have both formally implemented bail reform policies, with New York’s new laws having taken effect January 1, 2020.
Interventions proposed by JAD include hiring “Violence Interruptors” [sic] to talk to friends and peers of shooting victims in high-risk communities, and urging the state to opt into Medicaid expansion to increase mental health care options to reduce criminal justice system involvement.
One of several community partners working with the monitors, Guadalupe Fernandez of the Tahirih Justice Center in Houston said she brings the perspective of immigrant victims who are “on both sides of [the] criminal legal system,” and encouraged the county to examine how misdemeanor bail contributes to the “arrest to deportation pipeline.”
Terrence Koontz of the Texas Organizing Project, also a community partner, said with both a felony and misdemeanor on his record he brought suspect experiences to the monitor group.
Although Kahan has requested the ability to work with the county on analyzing the impact of bail policy on victims, last year Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county should only work with groups who do not have “an axe to grind,” and rejected any formal relationship with Crime Stoppers.
The monitor’s report will be submitted to Harris County Commissioners Court as well as to Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in accordance with the ODonnell consent decree.
The full report can be read below.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.