Harris County pretrial services seeing caseloads and monitoring drop

The department is calling for better vetting procedures while officials say they need employees

HOUSTON – It was last November that KPRC 2 Investigates first examined how Pretrial Services operations were being conducted in Bexar County, which also includes San Antonio.

The operations were viewed as a model program across the nation.

Mike Lozito, who heads the operations, says his office has routinely received inquiries and visits from other major cities to get a better understanding of the success they are seeing with their approach to monitoring and assisting defendants before trial.

Less than 24 hours after our report, Natalie Michailides, the head of Harris County Pretrial services said, “I do plan on visiting Bexar County. I think it would be helpful to me to see what another county in Texas is doing.”

However, during a recent interview, the newly hired director admitted no concrete plans or contact yet with Bexar County.

“It’s not that I haven’t wanted to, it’s just that I have not yet,” said Michailides.

When she took charge last fall, the department had a record usage of electronic monitors.

However, Pretrial Services is already seeing progress. “We are [at] 3,680 which is down from 4,000,” said Michailides.

The overall number of defendants requiring electronic monitoring is also on the decline.

On Oct. 31, the total stood at 31,532. Three months later on Jan. 31, they were down nearly 1,100 from 30,444.

“Pretrial is taking proactive steps to address the closing of cases quickly,” said Michailides.

The full strategic plan will not be completed until June.

Inside the Harris County courthouse, blueprint strategies already are in play. “Part of what we have done is we’ve put officers in the courtroom,” said Michailides.

The strategy is simple. Pretrial Service officers are now in position to be used as immediate resources by the court for evaluating bail.

Judge Kelli Johnson says she and others are taking notice.

“We have been transitioning from probation to pretrial, and so in order to trust and have that faith to make that transition, you’ve got to have somebody to answer the phones and communicate with,” said Johnson.

An established better line of communication makes the process more efficient for all.

“Judges are able to be proactive, able to look at the conditions and be more thoughtful on what needs to be done in specific cases,” said Johnson.

Monitoring defendants is not easy in Harris County with over 30,000 people awaiting their day in court.

Bail Bondsman Mario Garza, President of the Harris County Bail Bondsman Association, says he is willing to meet with Pretrial Services to help them with keeping tabs on their defendants.

Garza says the department needs to do a better job of vetting a defendant’s information.

“We have them calling our office for updated information because we bonded this defendant a couple of years ago,” said Garza. He also expressed his concerns to Harris County Commissioners during a recent session at Commissioner’s Court.

Garza says recording work and addresses, as well as phone numbers, are part of the initial steps.

However, he adds making sure the numbers work and the addresses check out should be part of the follow-up with additional information gathered on immediate family contacts.

Crystal Johnson also believes they need to do a better job.

Treveon Tatum was out on bail when he was charged with killing her son in 2019. Court records from December to January show that Tatum’s electronic monitor alerted Harris County Pretrial Services he was in violation a total of 19 times. According to law enforcement, on Feb. 8, he reportedly killed someone else.

“It was like he was not on an ankle monitor when he really is,” said Johnson.

Her biggest concern was the fact that Tatum’s information was not updated. “Why didn’t you follow up and do something about it instead of letting someone else die?” asked Johnson.

Pretrial Services said they cannot comment on the Tatum case without the court’s permission. They did confirm two bond violation reports were submitted to the court before he was charged with murder again.

Michailides admitted in a recent interview that the department is being impacted by vacancies.

As of Wednesday, an official confirmed with the department confirmed, “Pretrial Services has 256 authorized positions, 92 of which are vacant.” That translates to roughly 35%.

“You bring somebody on, you spend six months training, they’re here for another ten months and they’re gone,” Michailides added.

The department is actively continuing to post job opportunities and interview candidates to fill the voids to further help cut down on the caseloads.

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