When Harris County first faced a 2016 lawsuit over its unconstitutional misdemeanor bail system, a broad coalition of law enforcement leaders, conservative activists, and criminal justice reformers united to advocate for something better. Now, nearly five years after systemic changes went into effect, a new report from the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania joins a growing cache of evidence affirming positive outcomes of Harris County’s misdemeanor bail reform.
Critically, researchers found the reforms led to a decline in recidivism, with a 6% reduction in new cases over three years following arrest.
They also found the changes to misdemeanor bail, which created a presumption of release for most low-level charges, resulted in a 13% increase in releases within 24 hours, a 15% reduction in convictions, a 15% reduction in guilty plea rates, a 17% reduction in the likelihood of a jail sentence, and a 15% reduction in sentence length.
Reduction in new cases over three years following arrest as a result of Harris County’s misdemeanor bail reform
“We were interested in understanding the impacts of the reform,” said Paul Heaton, academic director of the Quattrone Center. “How did it affect how criminal cases were resolved? Are claims that the reform is associated with higher rates of crime correct?”
To find the answer, Heaton and his team examined data covering all misdemeanor and felony cases in Harris County from January 2015 to May 2022 — a total of 517,000 cases.
“For me the most interesting finding was that the reform is working as intended,” said Heaton. “We show that, as release rates went up, people were less likely to be convicted or get jail sentences, yet there was no indication this increased crime. In fact, our findings suggest crime may have gone down because of this reform.”
Beyond the topline findings, researchers also discovered that Harris County’s misdemeanor reforms led to a decrease in future recidivism for individuals who have a history of criminal charges.
“These findings should make us pause and reflect about who we force to wait behind bars before trial,” said Kristin Bechtel, Arnold Ventures director of criminal justice. “Often we set arbitrary lines about who qualifies for diversion programs or pretrial release, and what this shows is that people who do have a criminal record or are older might be the ideal candidates in these misdemeanor cases.”
These findings echo those of the Hidden Costs of Pretrial Detention research, which found that releasing people before trial is associated with a reduction in future recidivism.
These findings should make us pause and reflect about who we force to wait behind bars before trial.Kristin Bechtel Arnold Ventures director of criminal justice
In addition to confirming other research, the Quattrone findings also fit with the experiences of longtime law enforcement leaders who have supported reforming pretrial detention.
“After 23 years as a City of Houston cop and nearly seven years as sheriff of the third-largest county in the United States, most people I met thought that jailing people for petty misdemeanor crimes before their trials was a poor use of valuable resources,” said Harris County Commissioner Adrian Garcia. “Everyone — Democrats and Republicans — agrees that people shouldn’t be kept in jail simply because they’re poor.”
History and Support for Reform
Harris County’s misdemeanor reforms stem from the arrest of Maranda Lynn ODonnell for driving without a valid license. In 2016, the 22-year-old mother ended up stuck behind bars on a $2,500 bail that she couldn’t afford and quickly joined a class-action lawsuit over the county’s bail practices. Little more than a year later, a Republican-appointed judge found the county’s bail system violated the U.S. Constitution and issued a preliminary injunction requiring necessary fixes. A final decree was issued in 2019.
Throughout this litigation process, numerous law enforcement and conservative-leaning groups filed amicus briefs in support of reform, citing concerns over constitutional rights and public safety.
The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation and R Street filed a joint amicus brief in support of the ODonnell litigation, which emphasized the harms inflicted by cash bail.
“Harris County’s indiscriminate reliance on secured-money bail violates core constitutional values of individual liberty and imposes massive and unnecessary costs on taxpayers without providing any countervailing benefit to public safety,” the amicus said.
In a separate amicus brief, current and former police chiefs, sheriffs, law enforcement, and corrections officials from across the country, including Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, warned that unnecessary pretrial detention leads to more crime, not less, while also undermining communities and wasting taxpayer dollars. In fact, their brief referenced previous research by Heaton that found pretrial detention of misdemeanor defendants in Harris County, when isolated from other factors, “led to a significant increase in the likelihood that a defendant would commit crimes.”
A group of 67 current and former prosecutors, Democrats and Republicans, state and federal, noted that wealth-based detention, like that practiced in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, undermined trust between communities and law enforcement, making people less likely to report crimes or work with police.
“Seeing indigent defendants detained (or experiencing it themselves) for no reason other than indigency, while others similarly situated but able to post bail go free, undermines the legitimacy of the criminal justice system and the credibility of those entrusted to prosecute crimes within it,” their amicus said.
Even after the initial injunction in 2017 and the ODonnell settlement in 2019, support for reforming pretrial detention away from the wealth-based status quo continued to grow within the Republican Party of Texas.
In 2020, 95% of Republican primary voters supported a referendum stating that pretrial detention should be based on risk, not wealth. And in 2022, the Texas Republican Party adopted a new provision to its platform that called upon the Texas Legislature “to ensure bail in Texas is based solely on a person’s danger to society, risk of flight, and criminal history.”
Since the beginning of the ODonnell litigation, the data and research has only bolstered the initial conservative claims in support of bail reform.
“When you ask if it makes sense to spend lots of taxpayer dollars to incarcerate people for low-level cases — people who would be released if they had small amounts of money — I think there’s a pretty good conservative argument for releasing them,” Heaton said. “What we have now is some additional data that shows this can work well in a real-world setting.”
Backlogs and Budgets
Besides the positive findings in Quattrone’s research, misdemeanor bail reform has also helped Harris County grapple with a significant court backlog caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and Hurricane Harvey. Thanks to the misdemeanor reforms, Houstonians who previously would have been stuck behind bars simply because they couldn’t afford cash bail for a low-level charge now return to their homes, jobs, and families — leaving room for cases involving a true threat to public safety.
“Only 184 pretrial misdemeanant defendants are currently incarcerated in the Harris County jail, a figure that would likely be several hundreds higher if the misdemeanor pretrial detention rate prior to the settlement had persisted,” wrote Marc Levin, chief counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice, in a Houston Chronicle op-ed.
Misdemeanor detention has also helped keep people out of jail by reducing post-conviction incarceration. This provides some much-needed help for Harris County at a time when the justice system is so overcrowded that taxpayers are paying $25 million to send detainees to facilities in Louisiana and West Texas. Quattrone researchers found that defendants were significantly more likely to plead guilty when held in pretrial detention, spurring public resources to be spent unnecessarily on incarceration or community supervision.
“There are numerous examples of offenses where people are not going to be a danger to the public, yet they are just sitting in jail awaiting trial,” says Tim Cole, former Texas district attorney and former president of the Texas District and County Attorneys Association. “That really puts pressure on people to agree to a guilty plea. Unfortunately, some prosecutors are successful in getting a guilty plea out of people who are unable to post bail, knowing full well that they would be unlikely to get a guilty verdict if the case went to trial.”
And as the nation deals with a COVID-era spike in homicides, Harris County misdemeanor reforms also prevent the diversion of critical public resources from other law enforcement priorities, like fighting violent crime or detaining individuals charged with repeat violent offenses.
“The ODonnell settlement has actually helped to prioritize the incarceration and prosecution of those who are real threats to public safety,” Garcia said.
The fact is that Harris County has only enacted systemic reforms to its misdemeanor courts. Felony courts still operate under the cash bail status quo that has been in place for decades.
Misconceptions and misunderstandings
While the data and research shows that Harris County’s misdemeanor reforms have been a striking success, coverage in media and politics has not always reflected this reality. Inaccurate media coverage and misleading politicians have spread misinformation about what ODonnell does and doesn’t do.
“There are a number of misconceptions about what bail is and what reform is,” said Brandon Garrett, a professor of law at Duke University and lead federal monitor for Harris County. “Some of these misconceptions are quite understandable: The bail system is truly complicated.”
One of the top misunderstandings is confusion between misdemeanor and felony courts. The fact is that Harris County has only enacted systemic reforms to its misdemeanor courts. Felony courts still operate under the cash bail status quo that has been in place for decades. Crime Stoppers of Houston, a local victims-advocacy group, has had to clarify the difference between misdemeanor reforms and practices in the felony courts.
“We support Misdemeanor Bond Reform,” Andy Kahan, Crime Stoppers of Houston’s director of victim services and advocacy wrote on their website. “We recognize and support the need for Criminal Justice Reform. What we don’t support is when public safety is placed at a higher risk when career habitual offenders are continuously released back to the community despite being charged with multiple violent crimes.”
The public confusion over ODonnell is exacerbated by spillover from debates about reforms in other states. For example, experts find themselves having to clarify the differences between Harris County’s narrow misdemeanor reforms and broader legal changes in places like New York State.
“Harris County’s approach to misdemeanor bail reform should not be confused with changes in other jurisdictions such as New York that have dealt with serious felony offenses,” said Levin.
In fact, conservative activists in other states have held up Harris County’s misdemeanor reform as a model. Jillian Snider, policy director for R Street’s Criminal Justice and Civil Liberties team and retired NYPD officer, wrote an op-ed in March that pointed to ODonnell as successfully striking political balance.
Meanwhile, each new piece of research adds additional evidence in support of ODonnell, lending its advocates greater confidence in their position, and hope to move onto the next big issues in criminal justice.
“The data from the federal monitors and outside researchers shows that the change in misdemeanor bail policy is working well, because low-level misdemeanor offenders do not put people in danger,” said Garcia. “We must continue to focus on ways to improve efficiency of our felony courts to prosecute the violent and most dangerous as a major priority to put safety first.”