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Houston, TX – The governing body of Harris County, Texas, the largest county in the state and third largest in the country, has agreed to enter into a landmark consent decree that will eliminate a system of misdemeanor criminal justice deemed unconstitutional by the federal courts. By a vote of 3 – 2, the Harris County Commissioner’s Court approved the agreement with a group of plaintiffs who sued the county in 2016, alleging that it operated a two-tier system of misdemeanor criminal justice – a system that allowed defendants with money to go free on bail, while poor defendants who couldn’t pay bail languished in jail.

The following is the statement of Jeremy Travis, Executive Vice President of Criminal Justice at Arnold Ventures:

The discriminatory nature of the Harris County misdemeanor justice system was both egregious and all too common in the United States. It is laudable that the leaders were willing and able to set aside years of codified economic and racial discrimination and reach a settlement under which misdemeanor defendants will no longer be punished simply for the fact that they are poor.

This will make the entire community safer, as defendants will be able to keep their jobs and maintain their families as they await their day in court – therefore they will be less likely to commit crimes in the future. It will also reduce the disturbingly high number of defendants who enter a guilty plea instead of defending themselves in court, because pleading guilty was the fastest way to get out of jail. 

This represents positive change that is long overdue. We hope policy makers across the country will see this and will work toward similar change in their communities.”

Vice President of Criminal Justice for Arnold Ventures, James Cadogan, added:

From the perspective of the national bail reform movement, this is a remarkable achievement by Harris County. There is a variety of entrenched interests who oppose this kind of essential reform, even though the injustice inherent in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts was obvious long before a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional.

There is no question that this is a civil rights matter, as the harms of Harris County’s previous system fell disproportionately on people of color. There was no justice for the poor, mostly black and brown defendants who were sent to jail – sometimes for months on end – because they had an empty wallet.

This landmark agreement is a remarkable step in the pursuit of pretrial justice. This a moment to be celebrated — not just in Harris county, but across the country.”