Criminal justice reform advocates say U.S. bail systems unfairly keep low-income defendants, many of whom are minorities arrested for nonviolent crimes, in jail for too long, which not only leads to overcrowding but can affect the outcome of their cases. In Houston’s Harris County, the nation’s third most populous county, officials have launched a $5.3 million reform plan, including a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, the Associated Press reports. “Low-level, nonviolent offenders should not be rotting in jail waiting for a trial. That’s just wrong,” Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said.
Some advocates are skeptical. They say previously discussed reforms have never come to fruition, and they are now focusing on litigation as the best way to address the problem. More than 50 percent of misdemeanor defendants in Harris County are detained until the end of their cases, many of them due to their inability to post bail, says a study by the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The study also found that misdemeanor defendants who remained jailed pretrial were 25 percent more likely to plead guilty. Of the pretrial defendants charged with low-level, non-violent crimes like drug possession and theft, 51 percent are African-American and 21 percent are Hispanic. Among the initiatives the county is working on is a pretrial risk assessment tool judges will use in determining bail decisions. An algorithm helps identify if a person is at risk of committing a new crime or failing to return to court if released on bail. The system, which judges will start using this month, is intended to ensure low-risk defendants are diverted from the system as early as possible.