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Houston Bail Study: Less Incarceration and Less Crime

A new study of more than half a million misdemeanor cases over a seven-year span in Harris County, Tx., showed that eliminating cash bail for most people charged with misdemeanors resulted in fewer people jailed while at the same time fewer people made return trips to jail, Bloomberg reports.

In what is sure to bolster bail-reform advocates' arguments nationwide, the study also documented other upsides including fewer guilty pleas, jail sentences, and convictions, which the study's authors say indicates that fewer innocent people were pressured into taking pleas and serving time.

“We show that it’s possible to change the pretrial system and release more people in a way that benefits the general public, helps defendants, and doesn’t lead to more crime. Harris County provides an example of that,” said the lead researcher on the study, Paul Heaton, academic director at the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania.

The bail reforms in Harris County, which includes Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city, were the product of a consent decree in a class-action lawsuit that alleged the county's policies violated the Constitution by jailing people longer on the basis of their wealth. The Quattrone study, supported by the Houston-based justice-reform group Arnold Ventures, covered January 2015, two years before the changes, through May 2022.

The key finding showed a 13 percent increase in people released within the first 24 hours of a misdemeanor arrest and a 6 percent decrease in new prosecutions over the three years following arrest.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg opposed the federally mandated reforms, and has continued to push for more restrictive bail provisions. Last fall, she released a report questioning the validity of a federal monitor report on the status of the reform effort. She also testified in favor of a bill that would require cash bail, regardless of offense, for any individual who had been previously convicted of a violent crime.

The court-appointed monitor in the case released a report in April projecting that Harris County would have saved $93 million in court costs, while defendants and families would have saved $478 million if the reforms were imposed in 2015.

That should help convince other jurisdictions to consider such reforms, Heaton said. “It was unfortunate that it took a lawsuit and millions of dollars of spending on lawyers and this controversy to enact this,” he said. “Instead of getting sued and waiting for someone to impose this from the outside, here’s something you can implement.”


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