Bail Reform in Houston: A Half-Decade of Bail Reform Malfeasance Comes to Full Fruition
Noted English poet Robert Southey wrote in Curse of Kehama that, “Curses are like young chickens; they always come home to roost.” The curse of Harris County bail reform, first supported by the District Attorney, who now has made clear it just is not working, has indeed come home to roost.
A landmark report was released last week by the Harris County Peace Officers’ Union dated April, 2022 that compiled the actual data concerning 16 Harris County’s misdemeanor courts so we could see what happened as a result of bail reform. To read the report is not to read of a success. The Shangri-La of bail reforms, the shining city on the hill, it does not appear, despite folks running around the country telling other states that it worked beautifully.
The premise of bail reform was simple: bail is not needed, people will appear and not commit crimes if released for free, and overall crime will decrease because “bail does not protect public safety” anyway. End cash bail!
The results, however, are quite to the contrary. We don’t deny that there were gains made in terms of some lower-level bail reforms that probably needed to occur, especially on the due process front. However, the reforms implemented have completely destabilized the system to the point where one wonders why anyone charged with a misdemeanor in Houston would, pardon our french, give two shits about being charged. Well, it turns out they don’t:
Failures to Appear in Court Skyrocketed to 76.09%
The failure to appear rate in misdemeanor court over the five-week sample period was 76.09%. That means over three out of four misdemeanor defendants required to be in court simply do not appear.
The Court Backlog increased 170%
The Court backlog in Harris County has increased by 170% since 2011, by way of comparison, and has steadily increased since bail reform was implemented in the 2017-2018 time period. If justice delayed is justice denied, as the old legal cliché goes, then the unpunctual Harris County misdemeanor bench is denying justice as a matter of settled jurisprudential theory.
72% of Misdemeanor Cases Dismissed
As it turns out, misdemeanor charges brought by the police in Harris County only stick 28% of the time. An astounding 72% of misdemeanor cases were simply dismissed according to the data. By way of comparison, only 26% of misdemeanor cases were dismissed in 2011. So much for the basic theory of crime deterrence: certainty of getting caught, swiftness of punishment.
$100 Million Dollar Price Tag
The report notes that Harris County has spent $100 million to get here. That is indeed a shame. Of note in this whole equation is that “misdemeanor” does not define the risk of the defendant. High risk defendants are feeding their habits by committing “low-risk” misdemeanors. And clearly, the odds of getting convicted on a misdemeanor are 0.280. That’s pretty good odds of not getting caught—in fact, you can guarantee that you are not going to be convicted in 7 out of 10 misdemeanor crimes regardless of what you do, presuming you are caught in the first place.
We are going to find out how this bail reform movie ends, but we already know as Southey predicted. Not well. All communities suffer when people are not held accountable, and this spirit of unaccountable behavior spreads like a curse and emboldens further disdain for our public institutions, which further harms all communities.