REPORT: Bond reform working while critics say it misses the point

Criminal suspects with violent histories released on low, personal bonds
Criminal suspects with violent histories released on low, personal bonds

HOUSTON – Harris County is under federal court order to reform its misdemeanor bail bond system to prevent defendants charged with mostly nonviolent crimes from languishing in jail.

Too many nonviolent offenders were being kept behind bars while awaiting trial because they were too poor to post bond.

Now, a year after full implementation, a study supervised by Duke University Professor Brandon Merritt said it’s working with many fewer misdemeanor defendants languishing in jail.

“These big deal changes, big picture structural changes in how the misdemeanor system works have made much it fairer,” Merritt said on Wednesday. “It’s working well. We haven’t seen changes in repeat offending.”

The report found that murders in Harris County are up 43% year-to-date and aggravated assaults have increased by 33% for the same period. It also noted increases in violent crime can’t be traced to bail reform.

The spike in crime is not in Houston only so it’s not a result of local or state-level policies. It’s a national issue, said Professor Krista Gehring with the University of Houston-Downtown.

But critics contend the report misses the real issue.

“No one has ever had any problems or issues with misdemeanor bond reform,” said victim advocate Andy Kahan with Houston Crime Stoppers.

Kahan said the problem is in the felony courts where some judges routinely release violent offenders on multiple bonds.

“The revolving door at the courthouse surrounding felony defendants who have been repeatedly released on multiple felony bonds has played a significant role in the increase, particularly the murder rates. And some of the increase in violent crimes in Harris County.”

Kahan has identified 97 murders he said have been committed in the last two years by suspects who were free on one, two, or even three felony bonds.

“Nowhere in this report is that issue addressed period,” said Kahan.

Crime Stoppers has asked the county to compile statistics on felony suspects released on multiple bonds who re-offend. Kahan said so far those requests have been ignored.