Criminal justice reform happens locally

Don’t get me wrong. I’m thrilled that criminal justice reform advocates have convinced some of the most detestable political figures in U.S. history to support easing federal sentencing guidelines. It’s a big step in the right direction.

But when it comes to criminal justice, most of the action is on the state and local level. It is in state prisons and county jails that the great majority of incarcerated Americans languish.

Draconian sentences are a big part of the problem, but so too are draconian bail requirements that put people behind bars –– away from their kids and their jobs –– because they can’t make bail on a super low-level offense. Finally, jails are full of people who should instead be receiving mental health or drug/alcohol treatment.

The city of Austin and Travis County have taken important steps on both of these fronts. The county has made a big push to increase the number of people awaiting trial on personal recognizance bonds, rather than making them pay bail. I wrote about this last year:

Nearly 70 percent of defendants in the Travis County criminal justice system are released on “personal recognizance bonds,” meaning they don’t have to come up with any money, either by digging into their own pocket or getting a loan from a bail bonds service, Irma Guerrero, director of the county’s pre-trial services, told members of the County Commissioners Court on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Houston’s Harris County is facing a federal lawsuit over its bond practices, which have often resulted in low-level offenders spending significant time in jail because they don’t have the money to bail out. The plaintiff in the suit, Maranda Lynn ODonnell, spent two days in jail after she could not post $2,500 for a charge of driving without a valid license.

In addition, local government has supported the Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT), a group of two-dozen mental health professionals who accompany the police to incidents likely involving mental health crises. APD has sung its praises and reports that the effort has helped prevent thousands of arrests.

The efforts appear to have produced the desired effect. Ryan Thornton reports in the Monitor:

According to the presentation Tuesday morning, the effort has been a success: The first months of fiscal year 2019 show the lowest average daily population (ADP) for October through November of the last five years. Specifically, total misdemeanor bookings – classes A, B and C – have dropped by 28.25 percent on average from fiscal year 2016 to fiscal year 2018. Relative to the numbers of monthly bookings two years ago, the county now files about 1,000 fewer misdemeanor bookings per month. The sharpest decline is seen in class C misdemeanors such as public intoxication, averaging over 300 fewer cases per month from fiscal year 2016 to September of this year.


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