Scrutiny over Harris County’s felony bond system has increased in the wake of the surge in violent felony crimes over the last year.
The county’s top leader, Lina Hidalgo says “there isn’t one silver bullet” to correct the overwhelmed criminal justice system.
There are currently 50,000 felony cases making their way through the criminal justice system, according to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office.
KPRC 2 Investigates has reported on judges who repeatedly grant bond to violent repeat offenders, the increased number of personal bonds issued, and also highlighted the role prosecutors play in setting bond.
The biggest question from the community centers on how people are getting out on bond only to repeat violent offenses?
Experts involved in the system say part of the problem lies with the Harris Co. Pretrial Services. The department is responsible for monitoring defendants after they’ve been released from jail, but are not yet at trial.
In fact, nearly every major metropolitan area in Texas has this department.
The department works to “prove accurate and timely information” to help judges make informed decisions when granting bonds. They also work to make sure defendants follow the rules set by the judge when released from jail.
However, records reviewed by KPRC 2 Investigates revealed that’s not always happening.
A review of more than 250 murder and capital murder cases between January and September 2021 showed that in some cases, pretrial monitors did not notify the court when a defendant violated their release until months later.
Records also showed that defendants never reported for an electronic monitor or repeatedly tampered with the monitor.
“We had 300 people on electronic monitoring pre-pandemic, there are 4,000 now,” said Natalie Michailides, the Director of Harris County Pretrial Services.
Michaildes, who was appointed in September, admits her department is working to inform the court of any changes. She says they’ve established protocols to both serve defendants and the courts with better response times.
However, there also is another operational challenge her office is dealing with: staffing.
The department is working to fill 88 of 256 vacancies. 13 of those positions are in the pivotal electronic monitoring unit.
This has resulted in supervising officers “working longer hours or more days than normal,” according to Michailides. Not only are the days growing, but so are the workloads as officers don’t have caps on the number of cases.
Michailides says her department is facing the same challenge that businesses across the country are facing.
With defendants waiting longer to get their day in court, the cost to monitor them for that time period has grown.
Electronic Monitors are forcing a budget adjustment by $7.5 million, according to Harris County Pretrial Services’ annual 2020 report.
“The commissioners have been very supportive in funding the expansion of our services in terms of electronic monitoring, more people being on supervision for a longer period of time,” said Michailides.
SO CAN IT BE DONE BETTER, AND IF SO, WHERE?
Despite some of the same challenges, KPRC 2 Investigates traveled a few hours west to San Antonio where a similar program has garnered national attention.
“You can always improve, you can always be better,” says Mike Lozito, the head of the Pretrial Services Office in Bexar County.
Improving and being better means taking unconventional approaches that Lozito calls “therapeutic justice.”
“We’re trying to be holistic here,” says Lozito. “The best public safety is to get somebody on the right track.”
In Bexar County, the department provides immediate services and resources to defendants waiting for their day in court. Those services include treatment for mental health and addiction and help clients land jobs with companies and recruiters who visit the facility.
“We had one where we had I think it was 9 individuals that came in and I think seven of them got jobs that day,” said Lozito.
The one-of-a-kind facility has attracted officials from Atlanta, New Orleans, and Los Angeles - as well as several Texas counties – all looking to model themselves in some way after Bexar County.
“I don’t believe any county has their own kind of where they have invested in a facility that provides one-stop services,” said Lozito.
IS THIS A SOLUTION FOR HARRIS COUNTY?
Back in Harris County, Hidalgo says she’s challenged the local department to examine other counties for potential solutions.
“That is something we would look to do in the future, but right now we are focusing on the fundamentals,” said Michailides.
HARRIS COUNTY PRETRIAL SERVICES TO HIT THE ROAD
After watching Thursday night’s investigation, Harris County Pretrial Services is planning to take a business trip. They are heading to the same place KPRC 2 Investigates visited a few weeks ago, Bexar County Pretrial Services, to see how their program has become a success.
“I do plan on visiting Bexar County. I think it would be helpful to me to see what another county in Texas is doing,” said Michailides.
The trip is being planned for January, and KPRC 2 Investigates will be there to witness it.