Precinct One has been leading the way in securing reforms to Harris County’s criminal legal system so that we can have a system that actually serves justice, respects everyone’s constitutional rights, and protects the safety of the entire community.
In July 2019, a historic settlement agreement changed the Harris County misdemeanor bail system. Before then, those who committed misdemeanors and could not pay money bail, mainly communities of color, were kept behind bars awaiting their trials while those who could pay were released. In the lawsuit settlement, which was led by Commissioner Ellis and approved at Commissioners Court, a federal judge ruled that money bail was unconstitutional because it kept poor people behind bars while those with money were freed. Under the agreement, all misdemeanor defendants are guaranteed due process rights and about 85% of people arrested on low-level misdemeanors will qualify for automatic, no-cash pretrial release. The agreement also included public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. In September 2020, the first six-month report of the independent monitor in the case found that the reforms did not increase the risk of re-offending, individuals spent less time awaiting trial in jail, the average length of hearings more than doubled, and there was a decrease in racial inequities.
In June 2020, in response to the death of native Houstonian George Floyd and subsequent nationwide protests against police brutality against Black Americans, Commissioner Ellis led the effort to pass 11 criminal legal reform measures. The measures are aimed at providing civilian oversight of police, including an order proposed by Commissioner Ellis for the Justice Administration Department to study creating a civilian oversight board to review allegations of the use of force by police as well as $25 million to fund alternatives to incarceration.
1. End the Criminalization of Poverty: Access to justice, liberty and due process should be based on guaranteed constitutional rights and not how much money a person has in their pocket. We are working toward ending cash bail, and stop programs that trap low-income people in a cycle of fines and fees.
2. Guarantee Quality Legal Services and Representation for All: The legal system must provide equal access to justice, and that requires access to representation. We will work to guarantee quality legal services and counsel to all who cannot afford it.
3. Invest in Alternatives to Policing: The criminal legal system cannot solve poverty, public and mental health, substance use, and other issues. We must create alternative programs like emergency first-responder, and violence interruption programs.
4. Establish Independent Oversight of the Police: We must begin to establish accountability, which means ending qualified immunity, enacting use of force protections, and establishing independent and transparent oversight of law enforcement.
A report published by the Texas Fair Defense Project and Texas Appleseed showed that the OmniBase Program, which places holds on driver's licenses for missing court appearances, disproportionately impacts Black and low-income residents. In Houston, 40% of people with driver's license holds based on unpaid fines are Black, even though only 22% of the city's population is Black.
In July 2020, Commissioners Court ended Harris County's contract with OmniBase, a private company that manages these holds. Upon ending the contract, holds on 30,000 driver's licenses were lifted, and those impacted could renew their license and get back on the road. After pushing to get these initial 30,000 holds lifted, we continue to encourage other cities and jurisdictions in the county and across the state to end their participation in this unjust program.