Harris County implements sweeping change to bail system

By Robert Arnold - Investigative Reporter

HARRIS COUNTY, Texas - While Harris County is battling a federal lawsuit over what some claim is an unfair, unconstitutional bail system, wholesale changes are going into effect.

However, county officials said these changes were in the works long before the lawsuit was filed.

“This is very different than what we’re used to," said Harris County criminal court Judge Robin Brown.

Harris County is the first in Texas to start using The Public Safety Assessment. This is a tool that helps judges assess someone’s risk of not showing up for court or committing another crime before they go to trial. Risk is a key factor in determining how high a person's bail should be set.

The tool applies to felonies and Class A and B misdemeanors. This assessment replaces the old assessment tool that Brown and Judge Susan Brown called "outdated." Both said the old system assessed risk based on questions like, ‘do you have a home phone number?’

“Those things weren’t really helpful because very few people these days have a home phone number anymore," said Harris County criminal court Judge Susan Brown.

When deciding a person’s risk, the PSA looks at nine factors including level of violence involved in a crime, a person’s past convictions, prior instances of failing to show up for court and their age at time of arrest. The PSA does not look at race, gender, income, employment, educational level or national origin.

“The old assessment was focused on ties to the community, which not necessarily predicative of risk for failure to appear, or risk of committing another crime," said Judge Robin Brown.

This tool was developed, with input from several county officials and judges, by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. County officials said they reached out to the foundation nearly two years ago to begin working on implementing this tool in Harris County.

The foundation created this assessment to address the longstanding criticism that poor people got stuck in jail because they couldn’t afford bail, while those with money got out, regardless of risk. According to the foundation's website, more than 1.5 million cases in 300 jurisdictions were analyzed when deciding which factors should be included when determining a person's risk.

“A lot of people who are in jail are low risk, nonviolent defendants who are often there because they can’t afford to pay what you and I may consider a small amount of bail," said Matt Alsford, vice president for the foundation.

Alsford said more than 40 jurisdictions are now using the PSA, including the states of New Jersey, Rhode Island, Arizona and Kentucky.

To further expedite this process, Harris County has hired 13 additional staff members to screen the 84,000 people arrested each year on felonies and misdemeanors. The tool will help those considered low risk get released from jail faster.

"Anywhere from six to eight hours from arrest, total," said Calvin Banks, head of pre-trial services.

Banks said this tool will also ensure those who are considered high risk will see a judge before posting a bond.

“For the high-risk individuals, they will not be able to post bond before they get before a probable-cause judge," Banks said.

The final decision on bail still rests in the judges' hands, but both Robin and Susan Brown said this tool gives them a more complete picture of a person's risk.

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