Pretrial justice reform in Harris County
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Criminal justice system officials in Harris County, Texas have a long history of managing jail population levels that meet or exceed the facility's capacity design. Pretrial detainees, inmates who have admitted to the jail but who have not been found guilty of a crime, comprise the majority of inmates at the jail and therefore consume the majority of the jail's beds. Research shows that pretrial detention leads to harsher sentences, compromises defendants' economic capacity and exacerbates any existing or underlying behavior health conditions. This policy analysis focuses on the failure of the county's criminal justice system officials to appropriately evaluate and manage defendants' risk of committing future crimes and failing to appear at court proceedings and suggests potential reforms for managing this population. This analysis also examines the policies that contribute to the county’s reliance on pretrial detention, including a financial-based bail bond system, a lack of adequate defense at defendants' initial court appearance, and a lack of appropriately coordinated community-based alternatives for supervising defendants. The report identifies three potential reform options for appropriately assessing and managing the risk of defendants and analyzes the feasibility of the county's criminal justice system stakeholders to implement them in order to maximize public safety and court appearance rates while expending minimal public resources to achieve those outcomes. These options include: 1) revise the bail schedule, 2) grant defendants earlier access to counsel, and 3) expand and enhance the capacity of the county's Pretrial Services Agency in order to provide appropriate community-based alternatives to pretrial detention.