Criminal Legal System & Public Safety

Safe, healthy, and thriving communities are ones that invest in education, public health, and address poverty.

Commissioner Ellis with the Texas Organizing Project calling to end mass incarcerationOur criminal legal system does not always serve justice. The current model of mass incarceration uses the criminal legal system to address issues of poverty, public health, substance use, homelessness, mental health, and many other societal problems that cannot and should not be solved by criminalization. We want to re-imagine and rebuild our existing systems so that they better serve our community, and dismantle old ways of doing things that unfairly punish those who are marginalized.

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.

Ending Misdemeanor Cash Bail

One's liberty should not be based on the amount of money they have in the bank.

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.

Public Safety that Protects Everyone

We all believe that police should protect the lives of people in the community, yet every year we lose countless black lives to police violence.

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.

Our criminal legal reforms focus on four areas of needed change:

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.

Ending the Discriminatory OmniBase Program

 Visit Ticket Help Texas more information on lifted holds and license renewalFor Harris County residents, having access to a car is indispensable for daily activities such as getting to work, to a doctor’s appointment, and to pick up necessities like groceries.

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.

Precinct One will continue to work on re-imagining the criminal legal system so all residents are treated fairly and everyone benefits from increased public safety.