This story was originally posted on Advancing Pretrial Policy and Research.
El Paso County, Texas, exemplifies the art of long-term pretrial system improvement. Over the past six years, and without the assistance of a grant or consultants, local stakeholders enacted a series of changes that reduced the jail population and saved the county millions of dollars. As improvements were implemented, community safety was enhanced, with an increase in release on recognizance coinciding with a reduction in community crime, according to FBI statistics.
“We became smarter about making sure we’re not using our jail for the wrong kinds of people. So that was really a key focus. Who’s in our jail? Why are they there? Hopefully, they’re not there simply because they can’t afford a bond even though they pose no risk of flight or threat to public safety,” said Joel Bishop, executive director of Justice and Community Services for El Paso County.
We became smarter about making sure we’re not using our jail for the wrong kinds of people.Joel Bishop executive director of Justice and Community Services for El Paso County
The journey began in 2014 when the county failed the Texas Indigent Defense Commission audit. In response, the county commission started researching and investing in improvements to their pretrial system, using the National Association of Pretrial Services (NAPSA) standards to identify a big-picture approach to enhancements.
Reducing Unnecessary Pretrial Detention
In 2016, the county made magistrates available in the jail for pretrial release decisions 24 hours a day, seven days a week. El Paso’s Pretrial Services Department created its own pretrial assessment tool to provide more information about each person charged with a crime. This tool, validated by internal and outside researchers, helps magistrates determine whether to release people with nonviolent offenses or hold them until their first appearance before a judge. Additionally, the county introduced an indigency assessment to determine each person’s financial status and ensured low-income Texans are assigned a lawyer at the start of their case. This assessment consistently shows that over 80 percent of people booked into jail are impoverished.
These changes vastly improved the county’s system. Previously, magistrates were only available Monday through Friday during work hours, and a hearing could take up to a week after booking. After hours, officers often found a magistrate who would sign off on the requested bond based solely on the charge. As a result, many people were detained after booking because they could not afford to pay, not because a judicial officer identified them as a risk to the community.
Eliminating a Bond Schedule Positively Affects Disparities
In February 2017, judges eliminated the standard bond schedule, which assigned a financial amount based on a charge, in favor of individualized decisions. Reductions in racial disparities were immediate. Bishop notes that 2017 was the first year in which release rates on the first day of pretrial detention were similar between Black and white people.
“Economic disparities intersect with race and ethnic disparities, so a fixed money bond schedule will reflect those disparities in the jail population. Now judges get more information to set an individualized bond informed by an indigency assessment, empirical, and historical information. This is just a smarter and fairer way to make pretrial decisions,” Bishop said.
The introduction of 24⁄7 magistrates, the pretrial assessment process, and the elimination of the bond schedule increased the number of people released on their own recognizance while awaiting trial. In 2015, before reform was enacted, just 1,333 people were released on personal recognizance bonds — agreements to appear in court and remain law-abiding. In 2016, that number jumped to 1,899, and in 2019 it rose to 5,060.
“I think having somebody there to hear cases and set bonds around the clock really makes it a lot easier on people, real human beings, to get out of jail and move forward with their lives more quickly,” said Kelli Childress, chief public defender.
Meaningful First Appearance Hearings
In 2020, El Paso County expanded its public defender’s office to make certain everyone has a lawyer during their first appearance before a judge. Further bolstering its pretrial system, and in response to federal court rulings requiring that people appear quickly before a judge, the county required that adversarial first appearance hearings happen within 48 hours of booking. Before the change, it could take five to seven days, and people were not guaranteed a lawyer.
Approximate amount saved by El Paso County, TX pretrial improvements in the subsequent six years due to a decrease in the pretrial population.
“There’s a ripple effect of remaining incarcerated more than 48 hours,” said Childress. “For people who are already suffering, are already marginalized and in poverty, who struggle to pay their rent and to have a consistent source of food, who have jobs where they can’t just disappear for a day or more. In situations like that, I have watched how the system has sent people down a spiral because they’re unable to get out of jail right away.”
The county invested $800,000 in this reform, and the investment paid off. So far through 2022, the county saved $5.6 million that it would have expended detaining people pretrial.
Measuring System Performance
Having invested in robust data collection and analysis, El Paso County can demonstrate that these improvements have positively impacted the pretrial system. The data shows that as more people were released pretrial on personal recognizance bonds instead of financial release conditions, people who should not be jailed are released while those who should be detained remain in jail.
Crime rates in El Paso County decreased since reform efforts began. According to FBI data, as the use of personal recognizance bonds increased, violent crime rates steadily decreased, reaching the lowest rates ever recorded in 2021. The county’s data aligns with research showing that recidivism increases the longer people stay in jail, regardless of the risk level.
Other data collected by the county shows the following:
- 8 percent reduction in average jail bed days for all people pretrial for the four years following the reform efforts, totaling more than 90 beds per day
- 26 percent reduction in the pretrial jail population for people charged with the lowest misdemeanor charge
- 30 percent reduction for people facing mid-level felony charges, indicating that people charged with low-level crimes were not jailed simply because they could not afford to pay their bond
- 65 percent improvement in release time for PR bonds
- 12 percent reduction in re-arrest rates for higher-risk clients
- 61 percent decrease in the proportion of misdemeanors in the pretrial population
- 40 percent decrease in the proportion of non-violent felonies in the pretrial population
- An increase in pretrial detention for people charged with violent felonies and capital crimes
Though officials have significantly revamped the county’s pretrial system, they continue to eye future advancements, including the introduction of representation at the initial magistrate hearing. Bishop says that it’s important to educate stakeholders statewide about the steps needed to achieve similar reforms in counties across Texas.
For practitioners interested in improving their pretrial systems, Bishop notes that collaboration is key, even when some stakeholders don’t agree.
“Pull together your key justice stakeholders and get everyone to meet and to have a clear vision, purpose, and goal in mind,” he said. “Understand that these are lawyers and judges, and they might argue, but don’t let that discourage you. They’re not going to agree with everything at first. Be patient and be willing to negotiate reasonable enhancements.”
Bishop said El Paso still faces challenges. After the state passed a bill requiring a financial release condition for certain violent offenses, the county saw a significant increase in the jail population.
“Pretrial improvement must be implemented with the understanding that we will face constant challenges, and we must adjust accordingly,” Bishop said.