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Harris County takes a step towards jail reform

Good.

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Harris County commissioners voted Tuesday to back a sweeping plan to reform the criminal justice system, a week after the Harris County Jail began shipping inmates to other counties to avoid reaching capacity.

Commissioners voted to accept a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation and to allocate more than $3.3 million from general-fund reserves to help pay for the reforms, which were announced by District Attorney Devon Anderson earlier this month.

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The county’s plan calls for hiring two coordinators, implementing a new case-management system, funding a new court and allowing defendants to pledge personally to appear in court without requiring them to obtain a bond.

Of the two new positions, one would be a racial and ethnic diversity coordinator who would build and maintain ties between criminal justice officials and minority communities.

The other position would be a jail coordinator who would troubleshoot problems in the jail complex to ensure that detainees are released as expeditiously as possible.

Overall, the goal is to reduce the jail’s daily population by about 1,800 – or 21 percent – over three years. The jail, one of the largest in the country, typically holds 8,500 to 8,700 inmates.

On April 15, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, shipped 133 inmates to private jails in Jefferson and Bowie counties to avoid overcrowding.

The transfers – which are expected to cost the county about $180,000 a month in boarding fees – mark the fourth time in the past year that the sheriff’s office has had to send inmates to jails in other parts of the state.

These are all good ideas, but I want to see them in action before I get too excited. I mean, criminal court judges in the county could have been using Pretrial Services to set more reasonable bail amounts and issuing recognizance bonds well before now if they had wanted to. It’s not clear to me how this plan will change their longtime behavior on this. If it does happen, great! Long overdue, but still an important step forward. All I’m saying is I need to see it happen to believe it.

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