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Legal Blog

Harris County Bail Reform Efforts

Published: Dec 23, 2016 in Criminal Defense

Back in May of 2016, Harris County was hit with a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of its pre-trial bail policies. The federal class action complaint alleges that the bail-setting process for individuals arrested for Class-A or B misdemeanors is a wealth-based detention scheme in violation of the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. In an attempt to reform the existing system, local officials have decided to implement a new pretrial risk assessment tool, which judges will utilize in making bail determinations.

What Is the Risk Assessment Tool and How Does it Help?

According to bail reform advocates, the Harris County’s predetermined bail schedule essentially forces people accused of low-level, nonviolent offenses into detention simply because they are too poor to afford bail. The schedule does not take account of the arrestee’s ability to pay and set pre-determined amounts based largely on the current charge.

The new risk assessment tool is supposed to help judges determine whether an accused is dangerous and if they are likely to show up for court. Information about arrestees will be provided to judges based on nine factors designed to assess the defendant’s likelihood of re-offending or failing to appear in court. The nine factors include:

  1. Whether the current offense is violent

  2. Whether the person has a pending charge at the time of arrest

  3. Whether the person has a prior misdemeanor conviction

  4. Whether the person has a prior felony conviction

  5. Whether the person has a prior conviction for a violent crime

  6. The person’s age at the time of arrest

  7. Whether the person failed to appear at a pretrial hearing in the last two years

  8. Whether the person failed to appear at a pretrial hearing more than two years ago

  9. Whether the person has previously been sentenced to incarceration

The data-driven algorithm produces two risk scores for each individual and will impact thousands of defendants.

What Are the Implications of The Risk Assessment Tool?

In Harris County, more than 50 percent of misdemeanor defendants are detained until their case is resolved, many of whom because they could not afford bail. All told, there are around 8,500 people in Harris County jails on a given day and 70 percent of those being held are pre-trial detainees, meaning they have not yet been convicted of a crime.

On average, only about 8 percent of misdemeanors arrestees in Harris County are released without being required to pay bail, compared to nearly 88 percent of pretrial defendants released on personal bonds in Washington, D.C. Proponents say the risk assessment tool could not only keep arrestees from being detained because they cannot post bail but save the county millions of dollars.

Harris County currently spends nearly $1 billion in taxpayer dollars to jail pretrial defendants, which amounts to about $75 per inmate, per day. The hope is that the tool will give judges more context in determining whether arrestees should be released on personal recognizance bonds (also known as free bail) instead of imposing bail.

Experienced Criminal Defense Representation

If you are facing criminal charges, contact Houston criminal defense attorney Ned Barnett right away. With more than 30 years of legal experience, Ned Barnett understands how to develop an effective defense strategy and will fight to protect your constitutional rights throughout the criminal process. He is board certified as a criminal defense lawyer by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and will work tirelessly to get the best possible outcome in your case.

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