Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | April 25, 2016
The day after the Harris County Sheriff’s Office reported that an inmate had been beaten to death in jail, the county unveiled a $2 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to reform its criminal justice system.
Patrick Brown, 46, was charged with stealing a guitar in April. He wasn’t able to immediately post $3,000 bond. So he sat in jail for roughly a day before another inmate in the holding cell assaulted him.
The attack was caught on video, but reportedly, no one at the jail was monitoring the surveillance footage at the time. By the time medical personnel got to Brown, he was unresponsive, the Houston Chronicle reported. He died hours later at Memorial Hermann Hospital.
Under planned reforms, the county hopes to cut its jail population by 21 percent in three years, according to District Attorney Devon Anderson, a move that is needed not just to ease the burden of jailing people who don’t need to be jailed but also to address racial disparities in the system.
State senator Rodney Ellis cheered the reforms outlined in the grant with a statement: “Harris County’s over-reliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses has resulted in one of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the U.S. and the world.”
In many ways, Harris County is late to the nationwide movement to create a fairer justice system. It did not get a public defender’s office until 2010. Its jails have been the subject of federal investigations for pervasive abuse of inmates. But some advocates are hopeful that support from Anderson, Mayor Sylvester Turner and other officials signals systemic change.
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Support for reforms, particularly for how the criminal justice system handles nonviolent drug offenders, has grown both nationally and locally.
The “smart on crime” Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act has dozens of bipartisan sponsors in the Senate. Anderson launched a diversion program to keep first time drug offenders found with less than two ounces of marijuana out of jail. And results from the Kinder Institute’s annual Kinder Houston Area Survey show growing support for reform. This year, 64 percent of respondents said moving away from mandatory minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders is a good idea, compared to 43 percent in 2011. Supporters argue reform will save money, reduce recidivism and address glaring racial disparities.
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“The biggest shift is really on the right wing of the political spectrum,” said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a professor and director of the University of Houston Law Center.
There, she said, politicians are moving away from “tough on crime” policies born out of the War on Drugs. Texas Republicans, in particular, champion reforms as cost-effective. Some 63 percent of Republican respondents living in Harris County said moving away from mandatory sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders is a good idea. That’s almost equal with the 66 percent of Democratic respondents who favored the reform, according to the Kinder Houston Area Survey.
“You have to appeal to your audience, and in Texas the message that gains the most traction is the cost,” explained Katharine A. Neill, a postdoctoral fellow in drug policy at Rice University’s Baker Institute, citing groups like the conservative think tank Texas Public Policy Foundation.
That support will be crucial at the state level. “I think there are, especially when you look at marijuana, a lot of Republicans that are on board with that,” she said about programs that help keep low-level drug offenders out of jail. But there is still hesitation, particularly in more rural areas, from politicians who don’t want to appear soft on crime.
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In urban areas like Harris County, though, reforms are moving ahead.
“I think it was fairly well understood that what we were doing was not working,” said Alex Bunin, chief public defender for Harris County. “There just wasn’t a real sense of how you get organized to do other things and how popular and expensive it is to do those things.” But after visiting Seattle to learn more about its efforts to reduce incarceration and preparing for the MacArthur grant, officials said they are committed to change.
With funding from the county and the grant, a new “Reintegration Impact Court,” will target low-level, nonviolent felony cases to increase the use of treatment programs and address deep disparities in the criminal justice system. Existing pretrial diversion programs will be expanded to include more offenses. Officials will also push the use of personal recognizance bonds to reduce the number of people waiting in jail simply because they cannot pay for bail. And a new position will be created to partner with local communities.
All together, the efforts are expected to save millions by cutting the jail population by 1,800, or 21 percent in three years. It costs $75 per day on average to house someone in jail, according to the Harris County Office of Criminal Justice Coordination. On any day, roughly three-quarters of the people in Harris County jails are there because they can’t make bail. And, according to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, across the state, some 60 percent of inmates in jail are awaiting trial.
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But it isn’t just about the cost savings for many advocates who are looking to reforms to reduce racial disparities in the system.
In Harris County, 19 percent of the population is black, for example. But they represent half of all felony drug arrests and 66 percent of the people incarcerated for felony drug possession, according to figures from 2012.
“It increases as you go through the system,” Neill said. Part of that, she said, is due to a lack of legal defense, particularly at bail hearings.
“And those things we’ve known all along,” said Thompson, speaking on the disparities. “We’ve known that people who are held in custody are much more like to plead guilty and they also get longer sentences than comparable people who have the money to get out of jail.”
But not everyone is equally concerned about the disparities.
While Bunin welcomes the support for reform, he said, he’s mindful of the motivations.
“You have to be a little bit skeptical about some of these partnerships because they are only going to go so far,” he said. “In the public defense community, everyone has embraced holistic defense, community-oriented defense and all of these things require that there be other opportunities for our clients in the community, other kinds of support. If our friends in the conservative area are helping us on the one hand but taking away these services, it doesn’t really help much.”
Still, change is the goal. Thompson says she welcomes support from any camp “because they’re all right.”
“The people who are saying you’re destroying communities (and) it’s having racially discriminatory impacts, they’re right, and the fact that we are wasting taxpayer dollars, that’s also true,” Thompson said.