Safety and Justice Challenge Featured Jurisdiction: Harris County, Texas

By: Vernon Smith

Featured Jurisdictions Interagency Collaboration Jail Populations August 13, 2018

Located on the Gulf Coast of Texas, Harris County has a population of more than 4.5 million residents making it the most populous county in Texas and third most populous county in the nation. Harris County is implementing several strategies to reduce its jail population safely, including implementing a pretrial assessment tool, starting a Responsive Interventions for Change (RIC) docket and increasing staff to address racial and ethnic disparities.

What were some of the issues occurring in the Harris County justice system that prompted you to apply for the Safety and Justice Challenge (the Challenge)?

In 2010, our jail population was more than 10,000. This required immense outsourcing of services to sustain the jail with little return on investment. Harris County formed a Criminal Justice Coordinating Council (CJCC) to address the high jail population and push systemwide improvements. While our numbers began to trend down, we still wanted to improve justice and promote public safety by reserving jail beds for high-risk individuals. Our CJCC recognized we needed to implement a new risk assessment tool to make better-informed pretrial decisions based on solid risk data and judicial discretion. We also wanted to continue building upon the collaborative effort among our criminal justice stakeholders created by the CJCC and realized the MacArthur opportunity would allow us to take a look at the jail, the system, and the drivers of the jail population.

Can you give an overview of the programs, policies and practices that Harris County has implemented as part of your SJC work?

We put three strategies into place to improve the way we do justice. The first strategy was pretrial reengineering and implementing a pretrial risk assessment tool. The key to this was the Public Safety Assessment (PSA). Our previous risk assessment was never used in a way that made people feel confident in it. We also increased our capacity for pretrial services, including increased staffing, and added defense counsel at first appearance in July 2017. The counsel at first appearance was not initially a part of our strategy, but research showed how vital it is in determining bail. These improvements have led to a  165 percent increase in the number of personal bonds granted.

Our second strategy is a newly designed docket system called Responsive Interventions for Change (RIC). It launched in October 2016. The goal was to reduce over-reliance on jails, high recidivism rates, and racial and ethnic disparities stemming from state jail felony cases.  This docket is able to address a large volume of cases, all possession cases of up to four grams of a controlled substance, and process them out of the courts and into community services swiftly. The strategy used is a therapeutic, team approach.  An essential component of this docket is the use of “peer navigators.” They are in contact with defendants from the beginning and help them understand the process.  The vast majority of docket participants are people of color. Prior to being placed on the RIC docket, most would have received convictions and done significant jail time, so this strategy is one that really helps us continue to focus on racial and ethnic disparities in our justice system. As of June 2018, RIC has consolidated more than 8,500 cases typically distributed across Harris County’s 22 criminal district courts. To date, over 5,700 of the RIC participants’ cases have been disposed and less than 500 resulted in convictions.

Our third strategy was to hire a staff member dedicated to eradication of disparities in our justice system. We hired a Racial Disparity and Fairness Administrator to facilitate and focus on the issue of RED in May 2017. The administrator acts as the liaison between the community and the CJCC and works in both the office and the community acting as a representative and voice between key justice stakeholders and various communities within Harris County.  We focused the first year on building an infrastructure devoted to RED and exploring gaps and barriers.  We are now looking toward the future with a focus on training, wider community engagement and productive RED data analysis to drive decision making.

Who is involved in your Safety and Justice Challenge efforts? Was everyone on board from the beginning or did you have to convince people to sign on?

The Harris County CJCC took the lead on initiating the Safety and Justice Challenge efforts. The CJCC includes representatives from our county commissioners court, the sheriff, county attorney, district attorney, public defender, district clerk, judges, and the mayor of Houston. The support for engaging in the Safety and Justice Challenge was strong and the commitment has not wavered, even as new stakeholders have come to the table through election cycles. Many times, new administrations come in and do not want to continue the work of previous administrations, but that has not been the case here. Sheriffs and district attorneys, past and present, have all been backers of the Challenge and the level of commitment across the justice system is second to none. I have been privileged to work with remarkable justice leaders across the country, but Harris County is home to a collection of doers and collaborators who inspire me and my team each day.

What are the main drivers of your jail’s population?

Harris County has a dangerous and violent jail population: 75 percent of the jail population is pretrial and approximately 70 to 80 percent of the pretrial population has serious and violent felony charges. This population is difficult to address during pretrial release hearings when one must balance public safety and liberty.  Another key driver is a significant portion of the jail population with these aggravated robbery, aggravated assault and higher-level sex crime charges also have lags in time to disposition due to the complexity of their cases. To address this, we are actively working on case processing improvement strategies to make justice as effective and efficient as possible. That is so we may reduce the pretrial jail population through disposition, in addition to releasing lower-risk defendants pretrial.

How is Harris County using data and sharing information among agencies and systems to help with your Safety and Justice Challenge efforts?

The court and administration receive daily jail reports from the sheriff. The process is done manually and the reports are in a basic format due to the county’s aging justice data system. Harris County is currently in a five-year process of transferring all our court data to an updated system. This will lead to more functionality and increased efficiency with data pulls and improved data analysis. The reports do, however, offer quality information that we can share with other agencies.  One of our goals in 2019 will be to better collect data on Latino and Hispanic individuals in the justice system. This has posed a challenge because current systems were designed around race demographics rather than the nuance of race and ethnicity.

What outcomes have you seen so far and what do you hope to see long term?

Prior to Hurricane Harvey, we began to see meaningful jail population reductions in our target populations through adoption and use of the pretrial risk tool and corresponding risk-informed release decisions. We have also saved more than 100,000 jail bed days through our RIC docket. Focusing on how we can efficiently process cases in a way that is respectful to both the defendants and the victims and how we can address racial and ethnic disparities have been key components that have led to these outcomes. Long term, we would like to do a racial impact analysis on an annual basis to measure the effects of our racial and ethnic disparity initiatives. We want to be able to track the disparities and discontinuities in our justice system and community, but also celebrate where we are successfully delivering safety, justice and equity.

This post originally appeared on the National Association of Counties website. NACo would like to thank Leah Garabedian, Harris County’s Chief Criminal Justice Strategist, for speaking with us about their efforts.