Tuesday, September 08, 2020

Harris County bail trends belie demagoguery from police, DA

When it comes to crime, trends trump anecdotes for managers but anecdotes trump trends for the press.

That's Grits' takeaway from the report from federal monitors analyzing reforms generated by Harris County's misdemeanor bail litigation. For the last year we've seen Houston's police chief and the local police union engaging in near-continuous demagoguery over bail reform, claiming it had caused a rampant crime spree. Now it's evident that's not true.

One of the difficulties when debating criminal-justice topics is that the system is so vast that you can find an anecdote for anything, whether you prefer stories of salvation or damnation. So it's good that the monitors' report took a global view. Reported the Texas Tribune:
The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

See also Houston Chronicle coverage. Monitors found that, "recidivism is stable or declining across the entire time period from 2015-2019 for each of the 90, 180, and 365-day time periods." Moreover, "we do not see any change during the 2015 to 2019 time period regarding repeat offenses that are felonies."

Will we now see a wave of Houston TV news stories going back to their old reporting and correcting the stream of misimpressions they've left by uncritically quoting the police chief and union boss spinning anecdotes to mislead the public? Almost certainly not. In fact, if those two held a press conference tomorrow doing the same thing, it'd be covered without caveat or contradiction, just like before.

Perusing the rest of the report, a monitor's analysis of 560 cases set for either personal or cash bond found the DA opposed to the bond set in a majority of cases - 290.  (See chart, pp. 11-12.)

Further, despite criticisms of Harris County misdemeanor judges for releasing people on bond too liberally, the monitors found that "real judgment is being exercised whether there is a pressing public safety need to detain the individual." Their support for this assertion: "[I]n some cases (59 of the 579 cases examined), the CCCL judges later modified pretrial conditions set by the hearing officers, denying or granting a personal bond; finding that bond conditions were violated; and/or raising or lowering the bond amount."

In addition to expanded personal bonds, monitors observed "a substantial reduction in the initial bond amount set" over time since the rule change. In particular, "the initial bond amount was nearly always $500 or more before 2019, but the initial bond amount of $100 or less became much more common after the adoption of Rule 9 in 2019."

Another interesting change: As a result of monitors' discussions with hearing officers, they determined that often the basis for magistration decisions was not adequately explained in the forms. It turned out, the electronic form only gave space to include two lines of text. The form was expanded to allow explanations up to 1,000 words, and hearing officers empirically have begun to expand their analysis. Over time, this could lead to a lot more information about how and why pretrial-detention decisions are made, an area which has largely been a black box since time immemorial. Still, the monitors say:

the practice has improved, but it is still not always apparent what the clear and convincing evidence is to support a particular pre-trial condition. In conversations with representatives of the Public Defender’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office, we learned that both prosecutors and defense attorneys would benefit from opinions that provide clear recitations of the facts supporting the clear and convincing standard for decisions on the choice of bond conditions, a person’s ability to pay a secured bond, and whether the decision reflects a need to protect the public safety.

Monitors remain concerned that many decisions are still issued despite the:

absence of a statement of the evidence that meets the clear and convincing standard for a particular pretrial condition; the lack of explanation for the choice of a particular amount of financial bond; the need for explicit findings of ability to pay, consistent with the Consent Decree definition of indigency; and the need for an explicit finding, based on clear and convincing evidence, that detention is necessary if the person cannot afford the amount required

While jail stays have reduced for most misdemeanor defendants under the new system, for a few, detention periods have significantly increased. "[W]hile a large majority (at least 75%) of misdemeanor arrestees in the past two years have experienced fewer jail days than before the ODonnell lawsuit, others continue to experience relatively lengthy jail stays, driving up average detention length and costs." The monitors will examine this topic in more detail in future reports: "because jail stays are ... a significant driver of cost, more investigation is needed to understand the reasons for lengthy pretrial stays for some individuals arrested."

However, it turns out the biggest expense from incarcerating misdemeanants comes from the "$800 cost per misdemeanor booking drives costs to rise and fall in accordance with the number of people arrested." That's much higher than Grits had understood booking costs to be, and in terms of fiscal costs, it's revelatory. Every arrest avoided saves the county the $800 booking cost, plus whatever additional incarceration costs may be incurred. That's no small sum! Monitors suggested that, "jail costs associated with the number of bookings can potentially be contained by reducing the number of arrests through alternatives such as citations, diversion, or community treatment alternatives." 

That said, "While these early findings are orienting, the data is not yet in a form for jail costs to be fully examined." Look for this topic to be revisited in future reports.

This report describes promising progress and is a welcome antidote to demagogic local media coverage based on anecdotal complaints from the DA and police. Demonstrating these more sanguine trends won't stop the press or those officials from focusing on salacious anecdotes. But perhaps these reports can give the courts and county confidence to look past all the Chicken Little rhetoric and stay the course. Things are improving.


Barrett Sundberg said...

As a trained accountant, I was intrigued by $800 cost per misdemeanor booking. In other organizations, often a substantial part of such a cost is overhead, such as the portion of the building's cost that is allocated to this task. Only a portion is marginal cost, the amount of expense directly caused by processing one more misdemeanor. As an example, I instantly imagine an overhead cost of $500 and a marginal cost of $300, adding up to the $800 total.

This is important because it affects the monitor's conclusion that the number of misdemeanors drives the cost of the policy. Perhaps the conclusion is correct, but the amount of variance is smaller than is implied by the $800 cost figure.

It's a tricky analysis because at some point, rising misdemeanors could indeed require more overhead. In practice, my observation is that falling misdemeanors would rarely reduce overhead, they would just free up the organization to put attention to some other issue, which should eventually be allocated some of that overhead. The accountant who established the cost may have already done a good job in the allocation.

In any case, the monitors may or may not have gotten the breakdown of the cost. So I'm quite curious. If the marginal cost is only a part of the $800, your previous understanding that booking costs are lower may be correct, because the cost of one more (or one less) misdemeanor booking might in fact be less. This wouldn't be the first time that one party to a discussion quotes a marginal cost, while another quotes the cost including overhead. This can be innocent, because each cost is relevant in its own context. Does the report discuss the cost breakdown of marginal costs vs overhead, perhaps in the methods section?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Well, even if the marginal cost is $300, that's still affecting budgets at the volume people are coming in in Harris County, whose jail capacity is greater than ~20 state prison systems!

It's a good question, though. I'd definitely like to know more about what goes into per-inmate booking costs.