Expert Details Houston Jail’s New Risk-Assessment Tool

HOUSTON (CN) – The expert behind a data tool touted as a cure for overcrowding in Texas’ biggest jail explained in federal court Tuesday how the system will make bond recommendations within 30 minutes of an arrest.

A federal class action filed last year accuses Harris County of violating poor misdemeanor defendants’ constitutional right against excessive bail.

With more than 4.5 million residents, Harris County is the third most populous in the United States behind Los Angeles and Cook County, home to Chicago.

Attorneys for lead plaintiff Maranda ODonnell say the system makes no sense because a person arrested and charged with a petty crime could languish in jail and possibly lose their job, but a wealthy defendant accused of murder can bond out.

ODonnell claims in her lawsuit she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail set by the county’s bail schedule after she was arrested on a charge of driving with a suspended license and booked into Harris County Jail in downtown Houston in May 2016.

Harris County Jail, which averages around 9,000 inmates, has a troubled history. More than 75 inmates died in the jail after a U.S. Justice Department probe in 2009 found the county was providing inadequate medical and mental health care to inmates with and guards were using excessive force on them.

Starting in 2015, the Harris County Sheriff’s Office took several steps to improve conditions in the jail: It installed a $5 million surveillance system, increased staff training from a two-week online course to a six-week academy, and raised the minimum age to work there from 18 to 21.

The county also plans to divert more people away from the jail by reforming its bond system with a risk-assessment tool that will recommend personal recognizance bonds for most misdemeanor defendants without pretrial service staff having to interview them.

County officials say the tool and a revised bond payment schedule are scheduled to launch July 1.

That’s not fast enough for ODonnell, whose attorneys have argued in a preliminary injunction hearing that started earlier this month that each day a nonviolent misdemeanor arrestee is held in jail just because they can’t afford bond is a constitutional violation and that many defendants plead guilty just so they can be released.

Dr. Marie VanNostrand co-founded the criminal justice consulting firm Luminosity in 2003. She testified Tuesday that she started working with Harris County officials in January 2015, over a year before the class action was filed last May, on reforms of its pretrial system.

She’s been meeting with the county’s 16 criminal court judges, its district attorney’s office, chief public defender and others, helping them tailor the risk-assessment tool she’s helped implement in other jurisdictions.

Critics say the tool won’t work because it gives judges discretion on whether to follow the risk assessment’s recommendation to give defendants personal recognizance, or no-fee, bonds.

VanNostrand testified Tuesday that the tool ranks a defendant’s risk of violating a bond by failing to appear or committing a new crime, and determines if they are at risk for committing a violent crime.

She said it doesn’t take into account race, gender, income, education, drug history, family status, marital status, national origin or employment, but focuses on defendants’ criminal history and history of showing up for court appearances.

VanNostrand conceded that judges will retain the final call.

“The tool provides risk indicators to the court, and pretrial services makes recommendations driven by results, but ultimately the judge makes the decision,” she said, adding that the goal is for judges to agree with the tool’s bond recommendation 85 percent of the time.

VanNostrand kept her focus throughout three and a half hours of statistics-heavy testimony Tuesday morning, even as the attention of many of the 20 people in the gallery drifted to their cellphones.

Wearing a gray jacket and purple shirt, she sounded like a proud mother as she described how the tool will let pretrial services staff briskly assess an arrestee’s qualification for a no-fee bond.

In Harris County, a law enforcement officer calls an assistant district attorney as soon as they detain a suspect and the prosecutor decides whether to accept charges.

VanNostrand testified that under the new system, as soon as the charges are accepted, pretrial services will get information about the arrestee and check their records to figure their risk for violating bond, a process that will take 30 minutes at most and could be finished even before they are transported to a Houston city jail or outlying county lockup, which will help prevent overcrowding in the main county jail in downtown Houston.

All people arrested by Houston police who don’t immediately post bond are eventually booked into Harris County Jail.

County officials are touting the new tool as the cornerstone of several reforms. County executives approved a pilot program on March 14 to place public defenders at bond hearings to guide defendants.

ODonnell claims in her lawsuit that arrestees are currently told by magistrate judges who preside over the bond hearings not to argue for a bond amount reduction, or say anything at all, so as not to incriminate themselves.

Houston and Harris County are also building a joint processing center in downtown Houston that’s scheduled to be done in March 2018.

Maj. Patrick Dougherty, who oversees the jail for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, testified on March 9 that the new facility will ease frequent bottlenecks in the county’s current inmate processing center, through which all inmates are booked in and processed out of the jail.

He said it will have an area for investigators to interview people, lineup rooms, municipal courts, two county courts and a probable cause court.

“It does away with old jail philosophy of putting people behind closed doors and holding tanks. That’s something that’s very labor intensive and very dangerous honestly for inmates. It’s going to look more like George Bush airport,” Dougherty testified.

He said there will be 500 mostly dorm style inmate beds upstairs at the facility and holding cells for disruptive inmates “who can’t play nice.”

“But basically it’s an open concept where deputies intermingle with inmates and stop problems before they start,” he said.

Kate David with Gardere Wynne in Houston is defending five magistrates against the class action.

She pressed VanNostrand on Tuesday to agree that the risk-assessment tool will make Harris County the “tip of the spear” for criminal justice reform in the United States.

VanNostrand agreed but didn’t offer her own pithy description; hers was more academic and restrained.

She said this model for identifying defendants almost immediately after arrest for consideration of a personal bond, and the fact that defendants granted those bonds will be diverted away from the county jail, puts Harris County at the fore of a national trend away from locking up nonviolent offenders.

“I think that is significantly further ahead than most jurisdictions right now,” she said.

Having already spent $1.2 million on outside counsel defending against the class action, Harris County has definitely paid the price for the reforms and critics say the county erred by not taking steps to settle.

If the county loses the case it will have to pay for plaintiffs’ attorney’s fees, said class attorney Rebecca Bernhardt with Texas Fair Defense Project in Austin.

Bernhardt said she and the eight other attorneys representing the plaintiffs have not yet determined their billing rate, which would be based on their experience and what comparably experienced attorneys make in Houston.

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