Sunday, March 06, 2011

Report: Whites more likely to be freed on bond than minorities in Harris County

An article in the Houston Chronicle today hits on familiar themes to Grits readers, discussing a new report from Houston Ministers Against Crime, a group of politically connected black ministers, and the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition analyzing pretrial detention patterns by race. The story opens:
More than 15,000 people were collared in Harris County for misdemeanors in the final months of 2010, but 70 percent of white inmates were released on bond before trial, compared to 50 percent or less of Hispanics and African-Americans, a new report critical of detention practices shows.

White criminal defendants also generally had to pay lower bonds for their freedom, according to a report released by the Houston Ministers Against Crime. The group of politically connected pastors claims aggressively locking up those who have been accused — but not yet convicted — for crimes like fighting and trespassing costs taxpayers big bucks and harms poor communities "struggling under the ongoing financial crisis."

Last week alone, more than 840 people accused of misdemeanors remained jailed at a cost of about $38,000, or $45 per person daily plus processing expenses, Harris County Sheriff's Office records show. Many are poor and unwilling or unable to pay fees of $200 or less to a bondsman.

Houston Ministers Against Crime released the new report to urge county judges and commissioners to correct a racial and socioeconomic imbalance they claim hurts poor people accused of crimes as well as others.

"Due to widespread economic woes, many of our citizens are unable to raise the money necessary to post bonds on even relatively minor cases," the report says. "Even while presumed innocent, they remain in custody as their jobs are lost and their financial troubles worsen. This hardship further undermines their families and communities."
I can't find a copy of the report online, but I've emailed TCJC to request one. Mainly, reporter Lise Olsen correctly infers, elected judges are to blame for the disparity and the large number of pretrial detainees generally, given that:
58 percent of the county's 9,700 current jail inmates remain "pretrial," the week's statistics show. Among them are disabled adults, teenagers, the mentally ill, substance abusers and first-time offenders who often get mixed in with hard-core felons.

Judges alone could decide to allow more misdemeanor and other nonviolent criminal defendants to remain free before trial if unable to post bond, but Harris County jurists rarely use so-called personal recognizance bonds, other records show.

Harris County District Judge Belinda Hill, the newly elected administrative district judge, said a judge-led group already is collecting information on pretrial detention and she'd like to expand it to include community members.

"This is an important area that judges have begun evaluating and will continue to do so," she said.
Great, judge, you "continue" to "evaluate" that while the jail is so packed the county is shipping prisoners off to Louisiana and getting a per-day bill in return. Given that consultants paid by the county said many years ago that rising rates of pretrial detention were the main cause of jail overcrowding, the idea that judges have only now "begun evaluating" the issue seems laughably, pathetically obtuse, not to mention way late. An editorial accompanying the story lamented that police and courts are:
sending indigent defendants, predominantly black or brown, to county jail for lengthy stays before they can contest charges in court. Many of them are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors that could have been handled with a citation and court summons rather than jail. These defendants often spend more time behind bars than the sentences for their offenses would mandate. Innocent inmates are pressured to plead guilty simply to get out of jail.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court requires that bail decisions should be based on the risk factor posed by a defendant to the public and the individual's financial resources, in Harris County in 2009, magistrates lowered bond amounts for financial reasons less than 10 percent of the time. Courts in Travis County, which has a population much smaller than Harris County's, granted more than 18,000 personal recognizance bonds, roughly three times the number approved here.
Want to solve the jail overcrowding problem without spending a fortune on new facilities, overtime, etc.? Police should be issuing citations for offenses where they're eligible, and judges should be issuing more personal bonds or reducing bail to manageable amounts. These are soluble problems, but not if the police or judges won't alter how they approach these petty offenses. Either they must choose to help, or someone (for police, the City, for judges, the Legislature) must require them to do so.

In particular, jailing people pretrial for longer than their sentences would warrant makes no sense. That's true whether it's for want of money for bail or mentally ill defendants awaiting competency restoration. But it's fairly common and one of the key causes of jail overcrowding statewide. 

Particularly in a large urban jail like Harris County's, the only real limit to police and judges jailing ever-more people appears to be not voter antipathy for mass incarceration but the willingness of voters to pay higher taxes to cover the bill. (That's the only reason Houston PD stopped arresting traffic violators.) After voters rejected their last jail bonds, and with their jail overflowing into the Bayou State, Harris County appears to have reached that point, at least for now. I suppose the cat-herding job falls to Jail Czarina Caprice Cosper, who is charged with somehow getting all these interconnected but disparate, often competing actors to work together toward the common goal of reducing the incarceration rate.

In the meantime, one thing the Legislature could do to help with the problem is pass Houston Rep. Harold Dutton's HB 548 (discussed here) reducing penalties for low-level pot possession to a fine-only offense. But mainly Houston police and the Harris County Sheriff need to begin using authority they've had for years to issue citations instead of arresting for certain petty Class B misdemeanors (Dallas does it, so does Austin, so can they). And most of all, judges must loosen up on bail for defendants who pose little risk but simply can't afford to pay. The purpose of bail is to incentive the offender's return to court, not to needlessly fill up the jail nor prop up an anachronistic bail-bond industry that's been outlawed in most of the civilized world.

See related Grits posts on:

Citations for Petty Misdemeanors
Pretrial Bonds :


Hook Em Horns said...

Racism? In Texas? Naw...say it ain't so!

Anonymous said...

Maybe Houston can do what they have recently done in Seattle. The City of Seattle has stopped enforcing certain traffic / drug laws because they disproportionately affect minorities.

On top of that, the City has stated that government jobs that require a college degree are racist! Apparently more whites go to college than minorities; therefore, requiring a college degree is nothing more than institutionalized racism!

Blaming white people everytime blacks have a bad is non-productive and will not solve the problem.

I am not saying racism doesn't exist; however, it doesn't exist to the point that is often implied.

Anonymous said...

There still are Whites in Houston?

Anonymous said...

What is the point, I assume its the same thing as saying "more people have their electricity disconnected because they don't pay their bill, than those that do".

Anonymous said...

Typical liberal Houston Chronicle drivel. Instead of digging deeper a d showing us what offenses people are being detained for, how many are repeat offenders, how many are actually legal citizens, etc.; the Chronicle paints with its typically broad brush to create a "racial" problem which, in reality, may or may not exist. How about digging a little deeper and analyzing all the relevant data instead of jumping to such a typically incendiary conclusion?

Anonymous said...

If convicted of a Class A-M, the maximum fine is $4000.00, for a Class B-M $2000.00 and Class C-M $500.00.

The Lege needs to enact a law where judges cannot set bail higher than the maximum fine amount for misdemeanor offenses and as Grits pointed out "judges should be issuing more personal bonds or reducing bail to manageable amounts.

It would be interesting to know the % of bail cases that are being set beyond these amounts.

Anonymous said...

This is a report put out by Obama Huessian. Check it out. Huessian Obama will twist every stastic to look like whites are hurting blacks. Perhaps not Huessian, but his people.

Unknown said...

As a white person who occasionbally does things for which I get into trouble, I am relived by this report. As a lover of justice, I weep.

Seriously, though: When the numbers are adjusted for economics, I wonder how large of a difference remains.

I'm not guessing what the answer to that is: I honestly WONDER.

Anonymous said...

Smith County judges about 30 years behind the times. They have the county commissioners pimping a new jail for them.

Anonymous said...

I can understand why Anon 8:53 posts anonymously. I wouldn't want my name associated with that kind of garbage either.

Charles in Tulia

Sandy said...

Amen to that one, Charles in Tulia.

Gritsforbreakfast said...


Regardless of whether the cause is racism or indirect consequences of racial economic disparities, the jail is too full of low-level offenders who are there for reasons of economics instead of public safety. That alone should be enough reason to change how they do things, given budget constraints in Harris County on new construction, overtime, etc..

Sometimes conversations about public policy problems are a bit like the proverbial blind men each describing different parts of the same elephant. The racial angle is important to black ministers, for obvious reasons. And it's an aspect white office holders REALLY don't like to talk (or think) about. But if you fix the bigger crowding problem that's busting he county budget, you would simultaneously reduce the racial disparities, a lot.

There are means to solve this situation that benefit both the white establishment and the minority poor, even if they don't describe the problem in the same language or stress the same points about how to deal with the elephant in the room.

Anonymous said...

Fair enough.

However, the people that are whining about it need to approach it from that angle and they would likely have more success.

Racism is overplayed and this just another example.

Anonymous said...

God forbid we would actually look at the stats and consider that the reason they are so skewed by race is that the capability to behave oneself and act in a civilized manner is also skewed by race. A person crying racism over a job requiring a college degree is essentially saying that blacks are too stupid to go to college. And with all that “free money” for minority’s to go to college the biggest barrier is themselves. I suppose if the state of Texas filed charges on a minority for binding their girlfriend to the bed and setting the house on fire it would be racist, yet advise such as this was in a song that caused the rapper to win rap artist of the year. Would anyone care to bet that if these so called minorities, who are racially disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system, would learn how to behave themselves, the racial disproportion would go away. Litigating equality is one thing, behaving like an equal is another. Perhaps those black preachers ought to be teaching those people who get thrown in jail how to act right instead of throwing B-Day party’s to squeeze money out of white politicians to get elected. I guess I’m a race traitor now.

austex1151 said...

Wow! Could 1:36 and 8:53 be one and the same? Indeed, with views like those it certainly is better to post as anonymous. And he questions whether racism might still be around?

When I worked as a medical officer at Travis County Jail, a frequently heard comment from deputies and cops was "Arrest 'em all and let the courts sort it out". But few "solid citizens" have a clue about how much damage can come with an arrest- loss of job, hundreds of dollars spent on bail, family disruption, a record that stays even if the charge is dismissed. This can send a fragile life into a serious tailspin- all over a minor crime! Law enforcement at all levels should have to justify an arrest for a minor offense upfront. If there is no valid reason for the arrest, and if there is a pattern there, then that cop should face discipline. We pay these folks a LOT of money.They get a LOT of perks. We should demand some of the "professionalism" they so like to claim. We can start by requiring all cops to exercise real judgment on the issue of whether to arrest to cite.

titfortat said...

This is a rather unusual report coming from (any) group claiming to be (against crime); it would seem the race card trumps all in this study (gee what a surprise).

In truth the disparity in bail comes from prior criminal record, those who have one receive higher bail, an increase with each new offense occurs and typically taps out at $5000.00 dollars for misdemeanors regardless of prior criminal record.

Hence the White defendants with a prior criminal record are in fact treated the same as the Black and Hispanic population. The disparity is not racial in perspective it’s the social economic al reality of high crime in poor neighborhoods.

Poor Whites, Blacks, and Hispanics have more priors, there are more Blacks and Hispanics living in poor neighborhoods where high criminal activity exists and so they go to jail more often and have prior criminal records…. This isn’t some new revelation and it certainly didn’t require much to analyze. I sure hope needed tax dollars were not funneled down to a non-profit for this study of widely known fact.

A huge portion of these revolving door defendants have felony priors; they typically carry weapons and are very prepared to use them in their day to day life style. A life of crime is for the most part a way of life for these defendants and choosing to ignore this fact by turning a blind eye in the way of citations and free bail for (minor) infractions will in every case promote criminal behavior.

These are not fragile lives we are talking about, these are street wise thugs that typically do not hold jobs and have little concern for anyone other than themselves.

There is no easy answer, but implementing policies that do not work is definitely not the answer.

A huge step toward fixing the problem would be in some type of intense educational program geared toward the youth from k through high school in poor neighborhoods; this has been proven to have excellent results and is all but ignored by the political main stream, they really are the ones left behind and are waiting for Superman. Being poor is not a crime, being deprived of an education in America is.

The legalization of drugs could be another saving grace in the elimination of a huge black market that fuels a multitude of street crime at the root level.

Until real issues are addressed to prevent crime, the ideals of groups like these politically connected ministers will do more harm than good. They do not seek to improve upon anything especially with their race driven agenda. In my opinion the small minds at work here are much more interested in stirring up trouble than in finding ways to help the poor. Blaming judges or anyone else as being racist for the demise of those who live a criminal life style is a new low in politically correct BS.