Saturday, August 13, 2005

Bail blunders boost bulging Harris jail population

This is the first in a series analyzing Harris County bail policies and their contribution to jail overcrowding. See Grits' full Harris County Bail and Jail series linked here.

With Houston as its county seat, the Harris County Jail houses people who are arrested from all over the state's largest city and beyond. For better or more often worse, Harris County criminal justice policies historically tend to drive those elsewhere in the state and at the capitol in Austin.

1,900 inmates currently sleep on the floor in the Harris County Jail, drawing the ire of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. According to a recent consultant's report (Word document) by the Justice Management Institute, a major reason is clear: A shift in bail policy over the last decade to require cash bond in more cases instead of personal bond, or releasing defendants on their promise to later appear in court. Half of all inmates presently in the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial; a large proportion couldn't make bail.

other factors are also at play, much of the Harris County Jail's overincarceration crisis can be explained by this shift in policy. In other words, Harris County's jail overcrowding crisis is a self-inflicted wound.

In the last ten years, the number of misdemeanor defendants who were ordered to pay bail instead of being released on "personal bond" increased more than 30,000%! No, that's not a typo:
It increased more than thirty thousand percent! Check out this table from p. 15 of the report:

Table 3. Pretrial Services Supervision Caseloads, 1994-2004






Personal Bond - Misd





Personal Bond – Felony





Financial Bond - Misd





Financial Bond - Felony





Post Adj/Other









Source: Pretrial Services database.

So what do the numbers mean? Bottom line, many more people are being required to pay their way out of jail in Harris County, when ten years ago they'd have been released on their own recognizance. Those who can't pay remain in jail, where 1900 inmates are currently sleeping on the floor. As the consultants put it,
it appears that a large number of defendants with less serious charges -- Class A and B misdemeanor defendants and defendants charged with fourth degree felonies ("State Jail Felonies) -- remain in detention because they are unable to post bond, despite being classified as "low risk" on Pretrial Services Bail Classification score and despite having no convictions.
How many of these low-risk defendants are sitting in jail because they can't make bail? In 2003, the number of low-risk misdemeanor defendants who were detained instead of released on personal bond topped 8,700, wth nearly 3,000 more state jail felony defendants in the same predicament (most of the latter are drug users caught with less than a gram of a controlled substance, or other low-level crimes).

The "low risk" appellation for high level felons may sound problematic, but according to the report, the system has been highly effective at predicting the likelihood of non-appearance at trial. On a scale from 4 to negative 5, the likelihood of misconduct rises from slightly over 3% to about 50% as the defendant's Bail Classfication Score moves from 4 to minus 5. A three percent error rate -- when you're predicting human behavior -- really is pretty doggone accurate. Here's how many of those low-risk offenders were detained in 2003:

Table 4. Risk Levels and Prior Records of Detained
Defendants Interviewed by Pretrial Services in 2003

Charge Level

w/ Priors

w/ No Priors

Capital Felony



Felony 1



Felony 2



Felony 3



Felony 4 (State
Jail Felony)



Felony (Unspecified)



A Misdemeanor



B Misdemeanor



Misd Unspecified






Source: Pretrial Services database. Table is based on cases filed during 2003 that were disposed on or before October 31, 2004.

So, more than 8,700 low-risk misdemeanor defendants who couldn't make bail were detained in the Harris County Jail anyway in 2003. There's no way to know from the report how many such defendants are in the jail at any one time, but coupled with Harris County's unnecessary incarceration of low-level drug offenders who the Legislature wanted to receive drug treatment, these bail policies contribute signficantly to overcrowding at the local jail.

Next: New "special conditions" imposed by Harris County judges strain bail system.


Catonya said...

all of which tips the first domino - how many of the incarcerated low level offenders lost their jobs because they couldn't make bond? How many are now behind on child support which will in turn land them back in jail? How many families were forced to sign up for gov't aid (food stamps, etc.) because of either of the 2 reasons listed above?

and sadly- around and around it goes...

OP said...

Any criminal system with thousands of inmates sleeping on the floor is seriously flawed and shouldn't pass constitutional muster. If the good people of Harris County want these low level criminals locked up, they should then pay for it by building more detention facilities.

In many ways the correction officers who staff the jail are as much prisoners of the system as the inmates.

The question of low level drug offenders is a very complicated one. Drug addicts must steal about ten dollars worth of stuff to "earn" a buck on the under ground stolen goods market. A non-violent --- and I agree most drug addicts are --- offender with a $100 a day habit does a lot of damage while out in the community.

Most addicts won't seek treatment until they bottom out and even then they often need a hammer hanging over their heads during the early stages of rehabilitation. Looking at jail or prison time is big, effective hammer most treatment professional will tell you they need.

But incarceration shouldn't be the first resort for those the courts want placed in community-based treatment programs. It appears Harris County has it backwards.

In California we passed Proposition 36 a few years back and it has been an unmitigated disaster because there is no lock up sanction in the mix of remedies for addicts who quit court mandated treatment programs.

Your are doing a public service airing these issues.

Anonymous said...

I'm going in, today at 6:00 PM.

And, I hate morons that know nothing about drug use or abuse, over and above stats. Even though that is not the reason that I am going in.

This is a great blog. Sorry about commenting on the commentators

Anonymous said...

My husband passed away while in custody of the Harris County Jail. He went in for a 3rd DWI. He was to be released Sept.8, 2006. I fought tooth and naiul fpr husband to recieve the medicine he was needing to live.He never got it. He was transferred to LBJ where he died after a week due to liver failure. He lefy behind two awesome daughters ages 5 and 6. Needless to say we are pursuing legal recourse. Harris County Jail is literally like a three ring circus. Three days prior to my husband's passing, we were working on obtaining a cort order to get him released, so his children would not be without him the rest of their lives. The "day" he passed away I had a very anal sheriff who tolm ethey had been working on getting my husband released since the night before. I told them they were a little too late. When I looked into getting him released a week or two proir to his death, the same sheriff told me it was not up to the courts any more -It's up to the sheriff's. Yes, my husband made a mistake with drinking and driving- This was also stemming from 1985 and one that was never proved in 1989. Yes he broke the law and had to pay but not with his life. I wish I could share with you or your readers the letters he wrote while there. They are at the very least shocking. I think he kind of felt he was not sure if he was going to make it out of Harris County Jail alive, therfore in explicit detail he gave names incidents, proof of nurses saying oops forgot you meds agagin today. The loss is huge for myself but it is something our daughters will never get over

Anonymous said...

well sue them and then they will have even less money for the inmates health

Anonymous said...

Follow the money! The system is being skimmed by judges and the sheriff's office. You want out - you pay. Now go look and see who is getting paid and its not just the bondsmen. Harris county is as corrupt as any in the country. Hopefully someone will shine a little light on the system

Anonymous said...

Harris county needs a class action lawsuit agianst it. From thousands of people who have story's of abuse and neglect who had nothing to gain accept doing thier time and going home.Instead were abused by guard's and staff and treated like war criminal's.This is to often a reoccuring story of Harris county.The worst jail in Texas.