Harris County was awarded GPL technical assistance to support the county’s criminal justice reform efforts. The Harris County GPL team is seated with the Pretrial Services Agency, Sheriff’s Office, and Justice Administration Department, and collaborates closely with the county’s mental health authority and other stakeholders to support the county’s work on improving its pretrial justice system, including bail practices, pretrial supervision, and diversion. These reforms are in line with efforts nationally to test new approaches to reducing criminal justice system involvement by focusing on connections to supportive services.
Nationally, jurisdictions are reforming their use of money bail to limit the number of people incarcerated before trial. In 2019, Harris County began implementing changes to its misdemeanor bail policy and practices as required by the ODonnell consent decree, a settlement agreement designed to protect the right to pretrial liberty and right against wealth-based detention. The GPL team supported the county’s new Justice Administration Department (JAD), a recently created department tasked with carrying out the county’s priority justice initiatives including the complex inter-agency changes required under the ODonnell bail reform consent decree. In March 2020, the JAD requested that GPL staff lead the county’s project management on the ODonnell consent decree. In this role, the GPL supported the county in the creation and management of its inter-agency implementation plan, supporting the development of RFPs for the external research and design services required to support the reforms, creating a comprehensive budget and developing agency capacity to implement long-term changes required by the consent decree, coordinating communication with the federal court monitor team, and supporting the development of new court appearance guidance for the misdemeanor criminal courts.
The six-month report released by the Court Monitor in September demonstrated that the reforms have decreased wealth-based detention for poor people and have not resulted in an increase in misdemeanor recidivism. The reforms have also sharply reduced the racial disparities in imposition of cash bail.
Following the implementation of local bail reform changes, Harris County Pretrial Services (HCPS) saw an exponential growth in the number of individuals released from jail and placed on supervision. The GPL is supporting the county’s pretrial services agency in creating demonstrations of model pretrial supervision practices, creating and testing innovations in pretrial supports, and exploring cost savings and community reinvestment mechanisms. The GPL assisted Harris County Pretrial Services (HCPS) in developing a pilot to assess needs and connect clients to voluntary services. GPL staff created a screening tool to survey several hundred Pretrial clients about key social service needs to inform referrals to community-based services, including employment assistance, access to health care, and basic needs. GPL staff then trained pretrial officers on screener implementation and data collection, including officers who conducted the screener with Spanish speaking clients. This process laid the operational building blocks for improvements to pretrial processes mandated by the ODonnell consent decree, allowing the agency to test a non-punitive approach to supervision by making referrals to supportive services that address client underlying needs.
Building on these efforts, the GPL helped the agency identify individuals on pretrial supervision who were eligible for lighter supervision requirements. GPL staff are currently working with the pretrial services agency and county judges to create responsive supervision procedures, allowing clients who have been compliant with their supervision conditions to shift to less intensive or remote supervision requirements when allowed by agency policy and approved by court judges. These shifts in requirements reduce or eliminate the number of times clients must leave work, find childcare and transportation resources, and travel across the county for in-person meetings with supervision officers. Reducing supervision intensity reduces the likelihood of technical violations that prolong criminal justice system exposure, decreases costs to the clients and county, and reduces client and supervisor risk of COVID exposure.
Jurisdictions across the country are working to reduce mass incarceration by implementing pretrial reforms that restrict the flow of people entering the criminal justice system. One of Harris strategies to reduce incarceration includes preventive approaches such as pre-charge diversion, a process where people who come into contact with law enforcement are offered treatment or services in lieu of arrest and jail booking. The GPL is supporting implementation of innovative engagement strategies at the Jail Diversion Center, the county’s mental health jail diversion center that serves as a resource to more than 40 Harris County law enforcement agencies, processing over 1700 diversions in its first year of operation. The GPL worked with the Sherriff’s Office and the county mental health authority to test client engagement strategies at the JDC that reduce intake barriers and strengthen client connections to case management staff supporting client transition back to the community. These strategies include reducing the number of intake assessments clients must undergo, creating operational guidelines to expedite client room placement, and tracking key service needs to improve hand-offs to appropriate community-based services.
In response to the COVID-19 crisis, from March to June 2020, the GPL team shifted its work with the pretrial services agency to develop a new service referral pathway for pretrial clients released from the county jail to access immediate transportation and temporary shelter services while supporting best practices in light-touch pretrial supervision. These initiatives position HCPS to connect clients to needed community supports, promoting positive pretrial outcomes and creating the pathways for the agency to draw on in its response to the ODonnell consent decree.
GPL staff also developed a new transportation and emergency housing support program for persons released from jail by contracting with local taxi, hotel, and case management organizations to fill a gap in services caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. GPL staff created a simple online referral process for jail staff to make to connect people to services 24/7.
Alternatives to policing
The GPL team was asked to help lead the county’s work exploring models for screening and diverting 911 calls to appropriate services outside of law enforcement, improving the county’s ability to meet caller mental and behavioral health needs while conserving law enforcement resources.