Harris County Commissioners Court approves 8 measures to reform criminal justice system

Harris County judge says she will sign order to release about 1K inmates from county jail amid coronavirus crisis

HOUSTON – The Harris County Commissioners County approved eight measures to reform the criminal justice system that aids in mass incarceration and police brutality against people of color and the poor community.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis proposed the reformation of the criminal justice system following the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many others.

The proposal includes studies that could lead to reallocating the county’s criminal justice budget, implementing an independent oversight board to investigate excessive police force and expanding the Public Defender Office. Its goal is to end mass incarceration of communities of color as well as stop the criminalization of poverty, mental illness and substance abuse.

“Reforming law enforcement practices and holding police accountable for these killings are important,” Ellis said. “But the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims are not simply due to rogue police violence. The destruction of these lives is a symptom of the much larger and widespread disease of systematic overcriminalization, mass incarceration, racism, and oppression in our American system that needlessly and continuously destroys countless Black and Brown lives.”

According to data given in a news release, the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world and Texas has the sixth-highest incarceration rate in the nation. The release also said there are twice as many people at the Harris County Jail as opposed to jails in New York or Cook County. Researchers also stated that there is no link between higher incarceration and a reduction in violent crime.

This reformation may lead to budget reallocations. Measures will include effective alternatives by addressing public health challenges, creating a county emergency responder program to allow professionals to better handle certain situations instead of the police and creating a county agency to administer violence interruption programs.

Commissioners Court also approved a study for the creation of an independent oversight body that shapes and publicizes policies and has the power to subpoena documents and witnesses. This study will help provide greater transparency after incidents of force and improve use-of-force policies and data-keeping to address excessive police violence. Its goal is to help improve accountability and transparency in use-of-force incidents by law enforcement.

“An independent board with subpoena power provides the public with assurances that the decisions being made are just. The county will study whether we can establish an independent board that can investigate, has teeth, independent funds and can make recommendations that have weight,” Ellis said.

Harris County devotes more than $776 million of its general fund departmental budget to law enforcement.

“We are calling for a comprehensive examination of our budget priorities, and what we can do to most effectively use the people’s resources to uplift our communities and make them safer while eliminating and divesting from structures that criminalize people based on their class, race or health,” Ellis said. “By redistributing funds toward community resources, we can begin to build a better quality of life for communities of color and find better solutions than a punitive criminal justice system.”

In Harris County, he said a black Texan is 16 times more likely to go to prison for cocaine possession, even though use is the same across racial and ethnic groups.

“Putting people in jail doesn’t make us safer,” Ellis said. “Research shows there is no link between higher incarceration and reduction in violent crime. When Texas reduced its incarceration rate, the crime rate also went down. When we lock people up, we hurt people of color the most. Black people make up 12% of our state population but 33% of our prison inmates.”

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