04.13.21

Minorities are at a Distinct Disadvantage in the Nation’s Third Largest Pretrial Population

image of four human heads inside one another along with title text

The following is an excerpt from a report created by the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. The full report, which can be found here, provides a springboard from which to continue to seek research-based, amicable solutions.

There has been no shortage of discourse surrounding racial and ethnic disparities in the criminal justice system. In fact, the need to address these inequities have emerged as a central tenet of most viable criminal justice reform efforts. However, missing from the ongoing dialogue concerning race, crime, and justice, are attempts to evolve from the mere documentation of disparity’s presence to action through empirically informed policy recommendations, program development and intervention designs.

This report represents one such localized movement toward action in Houston, Texas, the third largest criminal justice system in the nation, whereby we examine those behavioral characteristics and systematic responses that underlie the state of racial/ethnic disparities in the jail system

Processing over 100,000 citizens each year, the Harris County jail has garnered national attention for its discriminatory bail practices, which have been found to criminalize poverty while indirectly impacting racial and ethnic minorities. People of color collectively represent 72% of those in jail prior to a determination of guilt in Harris County.

“It’s not enough to simply identify disparity, we must understand WHY these disparities exists.”

A class action legal injunction handed down in June 2017, catalyzed by a woman unable to post a $2,500 bond for driving with a suspended license, requires that all persons charged with misdemeanors be released from jail within 24 hours. Essentially, the county has been prohibited from detaining poor defendants for low level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses. In effect, this reduces the likelihood of Debtor’s Prison at the local level. The Harris County pretrial population is of particular concern, as three-quarters of the average daily population of 9,600 inmates have yet to be convicted of any crime, three-fourths of whom are people of color.

Harris County has spent $7.2 million defending unconstitutional bail practices.

Though Harris County’s current bail litigation focuses on indigency status, its influence on pretrial outcomes has significant implications for persons detained before trial. Previous examinations of disparities in pretrial release decisions simply document unequal outcomes, without identifying factors that may explain these disparities. Failing to understand the context in which inequities occur produces ineffective interventions, primarily as a result of the lack of specificity.

Therefore, this report examines racial and ethnic disparity among jail bookings and the pretrial population in Harris County so that we are better able to inform and prioritize approaches to pretrial equity. Based on our analysis of Harris County data, recommendations and policy suggestions are provided at the conclusion of the report.