Harris County, TX

Change in Jail Population 2%

Action Areas Community Engagement Courts Pretrial Services Racial Disparities

Last Updated

Background

Harris County operates one of the largest jails in the U.S.

At the time of joining the Safety and Justice Challenge, 20% of pretrial detainees in Harris County were charged with low-level, nonviolent felony offenses, such as drug possession and theft, and often posed little to no risk to public safety. People of color were and continue to be over-represented in the jail. When Harris County joined the Challenge, 51% of people in jail for low-level, nonviolent felony offenses were Black people, and 21% were Hispanic.

Nearly 70% of offenders who were placed in pretrial detention and charged with a low-level, nonviolent felony ended up reoffending and cycling back through jail.

Twenty-nine percent of individuals held in Harris County for a misdemeanor had a documented mental illness.

Strategies

Harris County advanced a number of strategies to rethink and redesign its criminal justice system so that it is more fair, just, and equitable for all.

01

RACIAL EQUITY COMMITTEE

To support the county’s efforts to eliminate racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system, the Racial and Ethnic Equity Standing Committee was launched. The committee consists of thirteen community representatives and four government officials. It is focused on improving education and transparency, developing interventions to reduce disparities, and advancing best practices.

02

COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Harris County created two new staff positions to strengthen racial and ethnic equity and community engagement. These positions have implemented micro-grants to community-based organizations with the goal of achieving public safety through the community’s own solutions and services.

03

IMPROVED CASE PROCESSING

In 2016, the county implemented a Responsive Interventions for Change (RIC) docket that focuses on individuals charged with low-level felony drug possession offenses. The RIC docket diverts individuals from jail to community-based services in lieu of conviction and offers deferment from imprisonment for individuals with a lengthy non-violent criminal history.

04

PRETRIAL RELEASE

Harris Countyadded assistant public defenders to represent people at their initial appearance in Probable Cause Court for the purposes of a bail hearing. The county criminal courts at law and the criminal district courts implemented General Order Bonds (unsecured) to reduce the overreliance on money bail on certain offenses and speed up how quickly people can be released back into the community. In courtrooms, judges used public safety assessment risk tool to maximize safe pretrial releases.

05

DEDICATED STAFF

A new position was created within the Sheriff's office—the In Custody Population Manager—who helps identify individuals who could be good candidates for release, either because they pose a low risk to the community or because they’re in a vulnerable population. The manager has started to speed up various processes, like parole interviews and hearings, as well as the release process in partnership with Pretrial Services.

Results

As a result of the strategies above, Harris County has made progress towards its goal of rethinking and redesigning its criminal justice system.

Quartery ADP for Harris County (2016-2021)

2.1% from baseline

More Results

Due to improvements made to pretrial services, the county experienced a massive 593% growth in the number of individuals placed on pretrial supervision. Before having access to supervision and the appropriate interventions, nearly 70 percent of offenders placed in detention and charged with a low-level, nonviolent felony reoffended and cycled back through jail.

This drop in recidivism was due to the risk assessment tool successfully implemented by the Harris County Courts, as well as the new Responsive Interventions for Change (RIC) docket. Since October 2016, over 21,000 cases have been filed in the docket. Specifically, between October 2016 and early 2021, the county diverted 6,125 (85%) people to supervision and treatment, with only 15% of cases ending in conviction and incarceration. The RIC Docket completely reversed sentencing disposition from four years earlier when 79% of defendants charged with a state jail felony chose incarceration over diversion to supervision and treatment.

Finally, Harris County has taken multiple steps in working toward racial equity in its justice system. In addition to re-instituting the Racial and Ethnic Equity Standing Committee and establishing a micro-grant program to support community-based organizations, a new Racial Equity Index was built, which, upon completion, will be a dashboard open to the community and the public.

Remaining Challenges

Harris County is focused on addressing its remaining challenges in its local justice system.

The county has faced several crises over the past few years with major impacts on the criminal justice system. Its biggest challenge remains trying to sustain a jail population reduction while dealing with the criminal case backlog created when courthouses were closed during Hurricane Harvey, followed by the limited capacity for dockets due to Covid-19. The courts are working to address the backlog, with three emergency response dockets for pre-trial hearings, three emergency response dockets for jury trials that focus on the oldest and most serious cases, and continue to operate jury assembly operations and voir dire at NRG Arena that follow CDC and public health guidelines. Justice Administration Department and the Office of Management and Budget Department are working with stakeholders to identify additional strategies and resources needed to address the backlog.

People of color also continue to be over-represented in the justice system. To expand on the work underway, the county is in the process of searching for new community engagement opportunities and will be moving forward with a comprehensive study of racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system.

Lead Agency

Harris County Justice Administration Department

Contact Information

Stephanie Armand
Stephanie.Armand@jad.hctx.net

Brandi Ebanks Copes
Brandi.EbanksCopes@jad.hctx.net

Partners

Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, Harris County Sheriff's Office, Harris County District Attorney's Office, Harris County Public Defender's Office, Harris County District Clerk's Office, Harris County Administrative Office of the District Courts and Criminal District Courts, Harris County Community Supervisions and Corrections Department, Harris County Pretrial Services, Office of Court Management and County Criminal Courts at Law, Office of Management and Budget Department

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