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A Better Pretrial Justice System for Houston

Harris County officials are taking an important step to meaningfully reform their pretrial system.

Brian Sweeney
University student Bryan Sweeney spent three days in the Harris County Jail in Houston in 2016 before he could pay his $10,000 bail for two misdemeanor charges, including for driving with a suspended license. (David J. Phillip/The Associated Press)

Houston has the third-largest jail population in the United States. There are approximately 8,500 people in the Harris County jail on any given day, and up to 70 percent of those inmates are pretrial detainees — meaning they have not been convicted of a crime and are simply awaiting their day in court. Some of these defendants are high-risk individuals or are charged with serious violent crimes — people that we as a society would be wary of having back out on the streets. However, a significant number of the people in jail are low-risk, nonviolent individuals who may be there simply because they cannot afford to post bail.

And for lower-risk defendants, unnecessary pretrial detention can have serious, lasting consequences. It can cause an individual to lose his job, lose his housing, and can create instability in numerous other aspects of his life. The societal costs of pretrial detention are significant as well. Taxpayers in Harris County spend $75 per day, per inmate, to keep people in jail.

Today, local officials are taking an important step to meaningfully reform their pretrial justice system by adopting the Public Safety Assessment (PSA), an objective, data-driven risk assessment tool developed by our team here at the Laura and John Arnold Foundation in partnership with leading criminal justice researchers. The PSA gives judges information that can help them make effective, informed, and impartial decisions about whether to release or detain a defendant. It is intended to help ensure that fewer low-risk defendants are needlessly incarcerated, while also making sure that the small number of truly high-risk defendants do not threaten public safety.

In developing the risk assessment tool, we conducted an unprecedented analysis of 1.5 million pretrial records from more than 300 jurisdictions across the country. We isolated the factors that are the best predictors of a defendant’s likelihood to reoffend, commit a violent offense, or fail to appear for his court date. These nine factors are related to an individual’s criminal history, age, and current charge — objective criteria that do not take into account information such as the defendant’s race, religion, gender, education, employment, or any history of drug use.

The PSA will provide Harris County judges with objective, neutral information that they can use, in combination with their experience, in making the many complex decisions they do every day from the bench.

More than 30 cities and states have implemented the PSA as part of their commitment to safeguarding fairness and enhancing the effectiveness of the pretrial decision-making process. Their forward-thinking leadership is making a difference — the initial results show the PSA is helping to protect community safety while reducing jail populations and freeing up funds for other government priorities. In Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, for example, the number of pretrial detainees is down 20 percent with no increase in crime since officials began implementing the tool in the spring of 2014.

We are pleased that Harris County is similarly committed to improving its pretrial decision-making process. It is our hope that the PSA will help to further improve public safety in Houston and Harris County while safeguarding citizens’ rights and ensuring that the criminal justice system operates as fairly and effectively as possible.