Chasing $4 million in grant money, Harris County officials Thursday announced reforms in the criminal justice system to unclog dockets, lower jail population and address racial and ethnic disparities.
And because the changes are so important, they said, they will do it even if they don't get the money.
"The pursuit of this grant has broken down the silos that we've been working in, independent of each other," District Attorney Devon Anderson said. "Whether we win this grant or not, we are going to do these things."Some of Grits' sources had speculated the process might implode and Harris County might not even apply for the second stage of the two-part grant, so in that sense there's evidence of progress. And maybe if they got the grant, an external funding agency holding them accountable based on metrics conceivably could prod action where inertia has thwarted it time and time again in the past.
The changes mean two new dockets for violent offenders to get to trial faster, more treatment and services for addicts and the mentally ill, and diversion programs for mentally ill homeless people and low-level nonviolent suspects.
County Commissioner Steve Radack, Sheriff Ron Hickman, several judges and other criminal justice officials flanked Anderson as she outlined changes that reflect six months of field trips and data-driven research, all bankrolled by the MacArthur Foundation, one of the country's largest independent philanthropic organizations.
Last year, the foundation awarded Harris County $150,000 to study other jurisdictions and the county's processes.
Late Wednesday night, a little-known committee that began meeting monthly under the late County Commissioner El Franco Lee submitted the county's application for a grant that could mean $2 million a year for two years to put its plans into effect.
However none of the suggestions being contemplated are much different from what every study panel and consultant who's examined it has told Harris County since the turn of the century. It's just that judges refused to stop using bond schedules, preferring to use jail to maximize pressure on defendants to enter plea deals, without which they feared their dockets would swell. So if the judges don't cooperate, none of this works.
The hope is that judges will be able to use a new risk assessment tool as a fig leaf to justify doing something - getting rid of bail schedules - that everybody knows they should have done years ago.
Replacing money with a standard assessment to determine risk of violence or future crime and whether the person will return to court has been trumpeted in several jurisdictions across the country.
The problem in Houston, state District Judge Susan Brown said Thursday, is that the county's 22 felony judges don't believe in the reliability of the current risk assessment tool.Also notably: "Anderson also will expand pre-arrest diversion, initially allowed for first offenders with marijuana, for suspects of shoplifting, the class B misdemeanor of retail theft. The plan begins in February." "Pre-arrest diversion" sounds like Harris may finally, fully implement Jerry Madden's 2007 authorization to give tickets instead of make arrests for certain low-level Class B misdemeanors including marijuana possession. (The Dallas City Council just okayed a similar policy for pot arrests.)
By replacing it, Brown said, judges will be more likely to look beyond the county's stated bail schedule and release suspects on personal recognizance.
If judges and the DA embrace these programs, the plan could work. But it won't be because of a grant. These or similar changes have been staring the county in the face for at least a decade.
Certainly, Grits hopes they do all this; I'm just tired of hearing them promise they're going to do it, which often seems to happen right about election time whenever voters start asking questions, one notices. So at this point my attitude is, "Show me, don't tell me."
Grits' message to Harris County officials: I trust your intentions are as lofty as your rhetoric, but I can't trust you'll change anything until the jail numbers go down. Promises and good intentions aren't enough anymore. Take your cue from Yoda: