Reforming Bail and the Pretrial System

hands of man on prison bars

The vast majority of individuals detained in jails in the United States have not been convicted and are awaiting trial. While there have been many calls for bail reform, there is disagreement on what consists of reform and how to accomplish reform goals. The Wilson Center researches and leads efforts to implement large scale bail reforms, such as in the ODonnell vs. Harris County case, where Faculty Director Brandon Garrett serves as the independent bail monitor. We also study other pretrial policies, including supervision programs and risk assessments.

ODonnell v. Harris County Independent Monitorship

In 2016, Maranda ODonnell was arrested in Harris County, Texas for driving on a suspended license and jailed when she could not afford bail set at $2,500. She and the other plaintiffs filed a class action suit that alleged that the county’s bail practices led to the systematic jailing of an average of 500 people per night solely on account of their inability to pay the money bail set in their misdemeanor cases.

The case resulted in a consent decree that requires prompt release on unsecured bonds for the vast majority of people arrested for misdemeanor offenses, a major shift in reforming pretrial detention. It sets forth a blueprint for creating a transparent pretrial system that protects Constitutional due process and equal protection rights. Faculty Director Brandon Garrett was appointed the independent monitor in the case and he and the monitoring team have released a series of reports on Harris County's implementation and compliance with the decree. Learn more on the independent monitor's website.

Selected Publications