Commissioner Adrian Garcia, Harris County Precinct 2

A person is guilty until proven innocent or wealthy. This is how our old outdated justice system has been working in Harris County for far too long. There have been incidents that an individual may stay in jail for months. Most are jailed not because they are violent criminals or guilty, but because they cannot afford to pay a bond. This system is far from just and fair because it penalizes the poor.  This may be a single mother who was arrested for failing to pay a traffic ticket, loses her job, misses payments for her mortgage and as a result, loses her home. She is now homeless. Or it could be a young man who was wrongfully accused but spent 6 months in jail before someone took a closer look at his case. We have to fix this. We can do better. We must do better. 

My career in law enforcement has shown me where government fails and where we could improve. Not everyone who goes to jail is guilty. Not everyone who is arrested is a criminal. I have seen the wasted human capital that sits behind bars that could otherwise be contributing to our economy. Instead, they are in jail awaiting trial, being supported by our tax dollars. Some families are being torn apart, parents losing custody of their children.  The poorer you are, the more likely you are to miss a court date: You cannot afford childcare, you cannot afford to miss work, and you cannot afford a car to get to the courthouse. If we are going to keep people out of jail for being poor, we need to have a criminal justice system that works for everyone.

The old outdated system of holding people in jail until they are able to pay bail – or keeping them until trial if they cannot – does not make the public safer; in fact, studies have shown it increases crime. A 2013 study by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation found that people who were detained after arrest were more likely to commit more crimes. In fact, the longer a person was detained, the more likely they are to commit a crime after disposition of their current offense. As the former Sheriff, I witnessed how this unconstitutional cash bail system helped to create the most overcrowded jail in our recent history that depended on lucrative contracts with private jails to house thousands of inmates, while still requiring the taxpayers to pay millions more in overtime to keep the jail compliant with state jail standards. I had no problem holding onto the most violent and dangerous, but the great majority had made mistakes that posed no direct threat to anyone but themselves. When our criminal justice system can deal with people proportionate to their mistakes then we not only become fair and just but safer because first time/nonviolent offenders will have fewer opportunities to learn from the worst in jails.

The impact goes far beyond the person who is incarcerated. Children with an incarcerated parent are more likely to experience higher rates of poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, and physical health problems. They are also twice as likely as their peers without a parent in prison to develop behavioral or mental health problems, including increased aggression, depression, anxiety and migrate toward gang involvement. They are also more likely to associate with delinquent peers, get into fights, skip school, have trouble concentrating, and to perform poorly in school.  This system is far from just, makes us less safe and negatively impacts our children. We have to do better.

The settlement announced this week is the first step Harris County takes at fixing this broken system. The decree applies only to individuals charged with misdemeanors except for cases of family violence, bond violations, and repeat DWI. These are crimes where a person is more likely to reoffend and will receive a magistrate hearing within 48 hours to determine what kind of bond they may be released under.  Those outside of these exceptions will be released on a personal recognizance bond, which means the person commits to make their court dates.  Under the consent decree, they are ensured the opportunity to be able to be represented by counsel at these proceedings.

Freedom should never be for sale, and it is time we take our seat as a national leader in civil rights reform. I know the best way to keep our communities safe is having a multi-tiered approach that allows our District Attorney and law enforcement officers to focus on the most dangerous, while enhancing a criminal justice system that promotes fairness for all. Let us be committed to our constitution that proclaims a person is innocent until proven guilty.