Harris County Reform Work

Fighting for Bail Reform

ADVOCACY WITH STATE AND NATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS: From 2015-2016, TCJE was invited to sit on a state-level advisory group to assist a standing committee of the Texas Judicial Council, which issued recommendations for Texas courts on enhancing public safety and social outcomes when making pretrial release decisions.

Separately, the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and John Jay College of Criminal Justice invited input into the development of a national pretrial research agenda that will be considered for future funding by the Foundation. TCJE submitted recommendations specific to the costs of commercial bail vs. pretrial release systems, and presumptive release on unsecured bond. Ultimately, TCJE was the only state group invited to submit recommendations from the field, alongside five national groups.

WORK ON TRANSITION TEAMS: Jay advocated for bail reform on the transition teams of Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, specifically around greater use of personal bonds or an amount below the bail schedule.

SUPPORT FOR LITIGATION AGAINST THE COUNTY: TCJE was supportive of the federal civil lawsuit filed against Harris County in 2016 for its unjust bail schedule. We provided the Civil Rights Corps (CRC) with data and other intelligence-gathering on the ground, and, in response to an op-ed by Michael Kubosh, a Houston City Councilman and bail bondsman, TCJE co-authored an op-ed with TOP about the current bail system promoting profit over justice. The federal lawsuit, which was formally settled in late 2019, increases access to personal bonds for approximately 85% of misdemeanor defendants. Jay is now assisting the individuals selected to serve as the Federal Monitor over the settlement, specifically by serving on the Community Working Group for the Monitor Team, which is advising the Team as it oversees the county’s compliance with the consent decree over the next seven years.

We separately worked with TOP and CRC to request and review videos of magistration hearings, finding damning video of judges mistreating defendants. Publication of those videos led Texas Senator John Whitmire to file complaints with the Texas Commission on Judicial Standards against three of Harris County’s five criminal magistrates for failing to issue personal bonds for indigent defendants, or even inquire about their indigency status. This, in turn, shed light on a longstanding practice wherein criminal and district court judges were directing magistrates to deny no-cash bail to all newly arrested defendants, in violation of state judicial conduct rules.

SUPPORT FOR LITIGATION AGAINST THE CITY: TCJE also supported a 2016 lawsuit filed by the Civil Rights Corps against the City of Houston. This suit was bolstered by jail booking data – captured by TCJE and our partners, resulting in plaintiff identification – that showed a lag between arrest/booking and the probable cause hearing. (While provision of the hearing may be the responsibility of the County, the City is liable for holding people for more than 48 hours without the hearing.) In 2018, a U.S. District Judge found that city officials intentionally destroyed evidence, which Jay called “an extraordinary ruling” against the city. This lawsuit remains ongoing.

CALLING ATTENTION TO PRETRIAL NUMBERS: Since January 2020, TCJE and TOP have been issuing weekly pretrial reports to illustrate how Harris County’s felony judges are jailing thousands of people prior to trial simply because they cannot afford the money bail required for their release. The reports provide the daily average number of people detained prior to trial on each judge’s docket, and they highlight the hefty cost of pretrial detention to Harris County’s taxpayers. TCJE has been especially vocal about pretrial release in light of COVID-19, sharing data on the limited releases permitted by Harris County district court judges – who have left more than 6,000 people in jail awaiting trial – and pointing out the significantly high infection rates in the Harris County Jail compared to other locations.

HOLDING JUDGES ACCOUNTABLE: Beginning in September 2020, TCJE and researchers at Harvard University have been releasing individualized scorecards for some of Harris County's felony judges, pointing to pretrial detention rates and racial disparities. Additionally, TCJE and Restoring Justice launched a series of monthly reports in September, showing the (sometimes low to nonexistent) rates at which Harris County district judges are assigning indigent defendants to the Public Defender’s Office, instead relying on private attorneys.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition is now the Texas Center for Justice and Equity! Learn More