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.