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We’re still not bonding out enough people

I’m sure this will make a lot of people uncomfortable.

More than 15,000 people were collared in Harris County for misdemeanors in the final months of 2010, but 70 percent of white inmates were released on bond before trial, compared to 50 percent or less of Hispanics and African-Americans, a new report critical of detention practices shows.

White criminal defendants also generally had to pay lower bonds for their freedom, according to a report released by the Houston Ministers Against Crime. The group of politically connected pastors claims aggressively locking up those who have been accused — but not yet convicted — for crimes like fighting and trespassing costs taxpayers big bucks and harms poor communities “struggling under the ongoing financial crisis.”

Last week alone, more than 840 people accused of misdemeanors remained jailed at a cost of about $38,000, or $45 per person daily plus processing expenses, Harris County Sheriff’s Office records show. Many are poor and unwilling or unable to pay fees of $200 or less to a bondsman.

Houston Ministers Against Crime released the new report to urge county judges and commissioners to correct a racial and socioeconomic imbalance they claim hurts poor people accused of crimes as well as others.

“Due to widespread economic woes, many of our citizens are unable to raise the money necessary to post bonds on even relatively minor cases,” the report says. “Even while presumed innocent, they remain in custody as their jobs are lost and their financial troubles worsen. This hardship further undermines their families and communities.”

Any discussion of race, in almost any context, is going to make a lot of people feel defensive; include the criminal justice system in the conversation and you increase it exponentially. I’m far from immune to that. But the numbers are what they are, and however you want to explain them it does no one any good to deny them. We need to understand what’s going on here. The main thing I’ll point out is that in addition to the burden on the individuals and their families, this is a huge cost to the taxpayers at a time when we’re making massive cuts to programs we want and need. A better and more just approach will not only benefit the people who are currently in jail but don’t need to be, it will save us millions of dollars.

58 percent of the county’s 9,700 current jail inmates remain “pretrial,” the week’s statistics show. Among them are disabled adults, teenagers, the mentally ill, substance abusers and first-time offenders who often get mixed in with hard-core felons.

Judges alone could decide to allow more misdemeanor and other nonviolent criminal defendants to remain free before trial if unable to post bond, but Harris County jurists rarely use so-called personal recognizance bonds, other records show.

Harris County District Judge Belinda Hill, the newly elected administrative district judge, said a judge-led group already is collecting information on pretrial detention and she’d like to expand it to include community members.

“This is an important area that judges have begun evaluating and will continue to do so,” she said.

Pardon me for saying so, Your Honor, but it’s time the judges stopped evaluating and started taking action. How long has the process to reduce jail population been going on, and what tangible steps to change how things are done can we point to? Grits is equally unimpressed:

Given that consultants paid by the county said many years ago that rising rates of pretrial detention were the main cause of jail overcrowding, the idea that judges have only now “begun evaluating” the issue seems laughably, pathetically obtuse, not to mention way late.

A large number of the judges who were up for re-election last year, and who benefited from that ginormous Republican wave, were criminal court judges. What have they done to alleviate this problem rather than contribute to it? The next report I’d like to see would show what percentage of defendants are granted or denied bonds by each judge, and what percentage of defendants are granted personal recognizance bonds. This problem didn’t happen on its own, and it won’t be solved without applying some pressure where it’s needed.

You can read the full report here; it’s not online, but I requested and received a copy in email and uploaded it as a Google doc. See this Chron editorial for more.

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  1. andrea says:

    I think if the jail is over crowded they need to start leting inmates out sooner like the ones doin county time or just small time

  2. […] can read more about that Ministers Against Crime report, including the report itself, here. What’s missing from this discussion is any mention of Harris County Jail Czar Caprice […]