Seventh Report Released in the ODonnell Consent Decree Monitorship

Latest Houston Bail Monitor Report Shows Overall Decline in Misdemeanor Arrests with No Negative Effect on Public Safety

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Houston, TX — On Sunday, the independent monitors overseeing Harris County's historic bail reform agreement filed their seventh report describing their work and findings with the federal court, noting that bail reforms under the ODonnell Consent Decree have saved Harris County and residents many millions of dollars, improved the lives of tens of thousands of persons arrested for misdemeanors, and these large-scale changes have produced no increase in new offenses by persons arrested for misdemeanors.

“Our work demonstrates the clear benefits of misdemeanor bail reforms in Harris County,” said Monitor Brandon Garrett, a Duke Law professor. “Over four years of work, we have seen a significant drop in the use of cash bail and racial disparities in pretrial release.”

Key findings in this report include the following:

  • The numbers of persons arrested for misdemeanors have declined by more than 15% since 2015.
  • The numbers of those re-arrested within one year have similarly declined. Re-arrest rates have remained stable.
  • In 2023, 80% of misdemeanor arrestees were released on bond before the first court setting, up from 49% in 2015.
  • The disparities in pretrial release rates between male and female, black and white, and Latinx and Non-Latinx misdemeanor arrestees in 2023 are considerably smaller than in 2015.
  • The share of cases disposed within one year has increased for three years in a row, from 45% in 2020 to 68% in 2020.
  • Early analysis finds that enrollment in court reminder programs decreases the odds of non-appearance by 35%. Harris County has made positive progress to address the system failures in the electronic court notification system highlighted in the previous report [insert link], but more work remains to be done.
  • Harris County is now piloting a new website where people can look up information about upcoming appearances in their cases, at https://myharriscountycase.com.

“Overall, we have found that the reforms in Harris County have resulted in far more people released back to the community, who would otherwise have been jailed based solely on an inability to pay,” said Deputy Monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson.

A key part of the monitorship is convening quarterly meetings of the Community Work Group to share the Monitor Team’s work and solicit input from our diverse community stakeholders.

Oudrey Hervey is a retired Navy Commander with 29 years of progressive experience in leadership. As the former executive director of U.S. Veterans Initiative-Houston and Career Advisor for Texas Veterans Commission, Oudrey oversaw the intake, housing, meals, clinical counseling, and career development over 500 Veterans, many of them unhoused or justice-involved.

Hervey calls the ODonnell misdemeanor bail reforms a “great policy.” “It prevents overcrowding [in the jail],” he notes, “and it prevents overcriminalization.”  He applauds the ODonnell rules for preventing the harms of jailing people, like the unhoused veterans he has served, who need not be jailed.  “Being there when you don’t have to be reinforces a negative sentiment about yourself that actually lands you, in many cases, in [future bad] situations because now [the jail experience] has helped define who you are.”

Becky Landes is the Chief Executive Officer at The Beacon, which provides essential and next-step services to restore hope and help end homelessness in Houston.

Landes says ODonnell’s policy of releasing low-risk individuals as it has been beneficial to the unhoused population that she helps although she notes that they are still disproportionately arrested.  “The data that the ODonnell monitors have shown confirms that many of the people arrested are unhoused, and they’re charged with low-level offenses like trespassing,” Landes notes. “Our criminal justice system has favored those who can pay for money bonds, and despite the progress made by the ODonnell consent decree, unhoused people are still more likely to be ticketed or arrested than the general public.”

The Monitor Team will continue its work over the next few years. They will assist in further implementation of improvements to pretrial hearings and accompanying procedures to facilitate compliance with the Consent Decree. They will also review County plans that follow recommendations made in the National Association for Public Defense indigent defense study and monitor the implementation of court appearance plan. They will also conduct further data analysis regarding vulnerable populations and perform a cost analysis. Their next quarterly Community Work Group is on April 18, 2024.

 

About the Monitorship:

The implementation of the ODonnell Consent Decree in Harris County, Texas — which encompasses Houston and, with nearly 5 million people, is the nation’s third most populous county — governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level misdemeanor offenses.

Duke Law professor Brandon Garrett was appointed independent monitor and directs the seven-year monitoring project that includes ongoing analysis of Harris County data and intensive engagement with stakeholders. He works closely with deputy monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson, professor of law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, and with Dr. Dottie Carmichael of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University.  Dr. Songman Kang of Sungkyunkwan University (Korea) also plays a crucial role in data analysis for the monitorship.

The monitorship is guided by nine principles derived from the consent decree: transparency; accountability; permanency; the protection of constitutional rights; racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic fairness; public safety and effective law enforcement; maximizing liberty; cost and process efficiency; and demonstrated effectiveness. Learn more on the Independent Monitor’s Website.