Criminal Justice

Harris County’s misdemeanor bail reforms are working, a new report finds

Despite concerns about violent crime, low-level offenses – including repeat offenses – are down compared to six years ago.

Rob Crow

Harris County bail reforms enacted two years ago have not led to an increase in crime or recidivism rates, according to a new federal monitor’s report.

The latest report out on what’s officially known as the O'Donnell consent decree found that despite concerns about a rise in violent crime, the number of misdemeanor cases filed in Harris County declined from 62,000 per year in 2015 to 49,828 in 2021 — a drop of nearly 20%.

Critically, the report found that recidivism for misdemeanors has stabilized.

“We've seen fewer people coming back into the system, fewer people re-arrested for misdemeanors,” said Duke University law professor Brandon Garrett, the lead monitor.

The reforms are also proving effective at reducing discrimination in the county's bail system, Garrett added.

"There had been real sharp racial disparities in terms of who got out on bond and who didn't, and those have been erased by these bond reforms," he said.

That hasn't reduced the racial disparity in the number of people arrested for misdemeanors, something which lies beyond the scope of the bail reform settlement.

But the reforms make it easier for those charged with low-level crimes to obtain swift release from jail on personal recognizance bonds. Previously, it was common for people to spend weeks or even months in jail awaiting trial for no other reason than that they could not afford cash bail. Federal courts ruled in the case O'Donnell v. Harris County that the county's cash bail system was unconstitutional because it discriminated against indigent defendants.

Garrett also said there’s no evidence the new system is a revolving door for violent offenders, despite arguments from critics that the reforms would do just that.

“For the more-serious misdemeanors,” Garrett said, “there's a much more in-depth (risk) hearing now. Public defenders are there to represent the person, and there's a much more robust discussion about what's appropriate in a given case, and then more time afterwards to revisit any pretrial conditions or provide supervision.”

Bail reform has become sharply controversial as a result of an increase in violent crime in recent months. Many conservative politicians, law enforcement personnel, and victims' rights advocates have blamed an increase in the number of crimes committed by people out on bail for other offenses.

Such accusations often conflate misdemeanor bail reform — which was the subject of a federal court consent decree — with the practice of individual judges in felony cases.

The Texas Legislature passed new bail legislation last year, Senate Bill 6, which makes it much more difficult for people charged with violent crimes, sexual crimes, or crimes related to human trafficking, to get out of jail on bond before trial.

Garrett admitted the new system is far from perfect. While repeat offenses have stabilized, Garrett said there are conditions that make them difficult to reduce. Those include mental health issues, and the region’s unhoused population.

"One of the next steps is to look more carefully at people who are, for example, unhoused, homeless," Garrett said. "There may be quite a bit of reoffending among homeless people who are, for example, stealing Tylenol or food. But obviously holding them in a jail isn't going to stop that cycle."