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Criminal Justice Reform Needed in Harris County

Published: Jul 18, 2016 in Criminal Defense

Houston criminal defense attorney Ned Barnett has extensive experience with the Harris County criminal justice system. If you have been charged with a crime, contact him today at (713) 222-6767 to find out how he can help you.

It’s becoming clear that Harris County needs to improve its criminal justice system. Harris Country has a population of more than 4.3 million people and jail population that fluctuates between 8,500 to 8,700 inmates on a daily basis, according to the MacArthur Foundation. Of the people in a Harris County jail, more than half are there pretrial, which means they have not been convicted of a crime.

Lawsuit May Spur Long-Awaited Reforms

After years of complaints and criticism regarding the county’s laws, administrative policies, and prison system, Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, Equal Justice Under Law, brought a federal civil rights lawsuit against Harris County in May.

The lawsuit states the county’s bail system is unconstitutional because it routinely jails defendants who are unable to pay bail. People who are arrested for minor charges like a possession of a small amount of marijuana, shoplifting, or driving on a suspended license frequently don’t have money to pay bail, which is often set at several thousand dollars. Thus, these non-dangerous individuals are left in jail for days prior to their trial. Essentially, people are imprisoned for being poor.

The lawsuit also states the county’s bail-setting procedures don’t allow for defendant’s to have a constitutional process, which would look at whether they could afford the bail set for them.

The lawsuit by Equal Justice Under the Law isn’t the first time Harris Country’s criminal justice system has come under attack. Law enforcement and legal advocates have been aware that the current system disproportionately effects low-income individuals and minorities for a long time, and they’re also aware that the system is overcrowding county facilities. However, this lawsuit may be serious enough to move people into action.

Moving Away from the “War on Drugs” Stance

It isn’t only the current bail system that needs reform. Texas is known for being tough on crime, but there is overwhelming political agreement to move away from the ultra-tough “War on Drugs” mentality that created harsh minimum sentences for minor crimes.

When the policies for drug consequences were created, law enforcement hoped harsh penalties would decrease offenses. In theory, people would be deterred from possessing or selling drugs or committing other petty crimes. However, studies have shown harsher sentences don’t effect the rate of occurrence – they just increase prison populations.

Reforming minimum sentencing for minor crimes not only lowers jail and prison populations, but it also ensures that Texas laws don’t disproportionately affect poor and minority populations. These reforms are also promoted as being cost effective.

Harris County Receives Grant to Tackle Reforms

Any criminal justice system seeking change needs help to ensure people retain constitutional rights and policies become more effective. The Safety and Justice Challenge from the MacArthur Foundation awarded Harris County $2 million in order to help the region’s reform efforts.

The county intends to use these funds to implement reforms, such as:

  • Hire a racial and ethnic disparity coordinator to train people in the criminal justice system to recognize existing disparities, create greater transparency, and facilitate community discussions.
  • Expand the First Chance Intervention Program for non-violent first-time offenders.
  • Use pretrial risk assessment to divert low-risk offenders out of the system and into more effective community programs.
  • Create a “Reintegration Impact Court” to handle low-level, non-violent felonies and utilize other statutory punishments to keep people out of jail.

Do You Need Legal Representation? Contact a Houston Criminal Defense Attorney today.

If you or a loved one has been charged with a crime, you should call Houston criminal defense attorney Ned Barnett. He has more than 30 years of legal experienced. Ned Barnett understands the nuances of Texas law and how to aggressively fight for his clients’ constitutional rights throughout the arrest, pretrial, trial, and sentencing processes.

For a free consultation about your case, contact The Law Offices of Ned Barnett at (713) 222-6767.