Funding needed to address huge increase in defendants under pre-trial supervision

HOUSTON – The number of people released on bond prior to trial and under the county’s supervision has grown at a quick pace since 2017. So much so, the number of defendants now under supervision is overwhelming county resources.

“At the end of the day, this is a public safety issue,” said Precinct 4 Commissioner R. Jack Cagle. “How do we make sure that the public is safe?”

The county’s Pre-Trial Services department provides information to felony and misdemeanor courts to help judges make decisions on a defendant’s release prior to trial. This department then monitors those defendants to make sure they’re following court orders such as GPS tracking or drug and alcohol monitoring. Felony court Judge Chris Morton calls these non-monetary conditions of release.

“We need the resources from the county and from the state to enforce non-monetary conditions,” said Morton.

KPRC 2 Investigates analyzed data from the county’s Justice Administration Department and found that the number of felony and misdemeanor defendants under supervision grew by more than 1,000% in a five-year period.

Harris County Justice Administration Department

A Pre-Trial budget presentation also showed officers carrying huge caseloads. According to the presentation, the average caseload for alcohol monitoring is 1 to 165, electronic monitoring is 1 to 91 and compliance is 1 to 605.

“We’ve got to put more money in pre-trial services,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis. “I’m going to talk with our budget director as I have been. It may not come overnight. It does mean you got to cut somewhere else to go and do it, because you have to pay for it.”

Ellis has been a driving force behind bond reform, which puts more emphasis on non-monetary bond conditions to ensure compliance and public safety.

Cagle agrees Pre-Trial Services needs the help.

“What we’re supposed to be doing is, is helping public safety,” Cagle said. “I think that giving adequate resources to those who are on the street, who have hurt their neighbors, are held accountable and make sure that they are in compliance.”

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia sent KPRC 2 the following written statement:

“Under my office’s guidance, we’ve added resources to the District Attorney’s Office to try to speed up the time for people to get their day in Court. In addition, I have supported new leadership in Pre-trial Services, with having Mr. Jim Bethke assigned to take control of that organization and provide recommendations on improving that system, which is critical to public safety and justice. As the former Sheriff, I’ve long advocated for non-traditional ways of monitoring people who await trial. That said, the best way to reduce the backlog of cases is for a pandemic to disappear and to finish the repairs caused by a major hurricane, because these two issues have brought our criminal justice to a near standstill. We all need to be doing our best to improve outcomes through better technology and better management.”

Another reason this has become an area of critical concern is there is a massive backlog of criminal cases in the court system due to the lingering impacts of Hurricane Harvey on the Criminal Justice Center and the pandemic. This means that some defendants are spending longer amounts of time out on bond. According to Feb. 2 data from the Harris County District Attorney’s Office, there are 90,319 felony and misdemeanor cases pending with only 3,372 cases listed as “on docket.”

The county is in the midst of a large analysis of exactly what resources are needed to manage the criminal justice system. The study is expected to be completed within the coming months and will help guide commissioners to where funding is needed most.