Care Not Cages: New report reveals significant racial disparities in policing and jailing in Harris County

January 6, 2020

Despite being one of the most diverse cities in the United States, Harris County court data revealed that Black people—while comprising 19% of the population—accounted for 45% of bookings in the Harris County jail and served 51% of the nights in jail

HOUSTON, Tex. —  A new report by Grassroots Leadership and Texas Advocates for Justice was released in a press conference today outside Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s office. The report, Care Not Cages, revealed significant racial disparities in policing and jailing in Harris County.

The reasons for these disparities are varied and complex, but undoubtedly two of the most significant factors are biased policing that feeds Black people into the criminal legal system, and well-chronicled wealth-based bail practices that keep poor, and largely Black, people in jail pretrial, coercing guilty pleas resulting in longer confinement, and creating or adding to criminal records subsequently used to justify the next arrest, pretrial detention and conviction. 

Based on the findings of the report, community leaders and activists call on Houston and Harris County elected officials to immediately act on the following:

  1. Houston Police Department eliminate racial profiling and unnecessary searches.

  2. Harris County Commissioners Court immediately prioritize funding pre-arrest alternatives to incarceration for drug possession.

  3. Harris County Criminal Court Judges implement a policy to grant automatic personal recognizance bonds to all defendants charged with POCS <1g.

  4. Harris County District Attorney stop prosecuting POCS <1g cases.

  5. Harris County Sheriff’s Office increase data transparency, accuracy and community accessibility.

According to the report, Black people comprised 19.7% of the Harris County population in 2017, yet from March 1, 2015 through March 1, 2018 made up 45.4% of bookings into the Harris County jail and served 51% of the nights in jail — over 3.9 million combined nights.

“Harris County must stop wasting tax dollars arresting, incarcerating, and funneling people through the criminal court system,” said Monique Joseph, field organizer for Texas Advocates for Justice.  “We demand investment in community-based response to substance use and recovery rather than punishment. Our communities deserve better than this.”

The report also revealed the lead charge driving the most nights spent in the Harris County jail over the studied timeframe was possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance in penalty group one (POCS PG1 <1g). Community activists feel the prevalence of this charge reflects how discriminatory police and bail practices combine to drive racially disparate jailing. 

Darren Joseph, a native Houstonian, shared his experience when he was a student at Texas Southern University and was sent to jail for three days after his traffic ticket led to a warrant for his arrest. “When I got pulled over, the police officer told me that the car would be impounded—I asked if someone could take it, they told me no. After the three days I was in jail, the cost to get my car out was around $600. The warrant and traffic ticket in combination was close to another $400,” he shared. “I could not afford all of that along with my rent, my car note, paying for school out of pocket, and then on top of that, sitting in jail for three days. It felt like a violation. I felt like no one cared, especially those that have the power. It felt like they didn’t care about my life at all, and this happening more than once throughout my life has really been a burden. I really think something needs to change.”

“Being stopped, detained, arrested and put into a cage for days at a time; feeling hopeless from fear of losing your car, job, family—I know the agony. I have lived through generations of family members being put into the criminal justice system for low-level offenses,” said Dianna Williams, field organizer for Texas Advocates for Justice. “We didn’t have money, so cash bail was never an option. Those arrests would have been best handled as public health and safety issues. It would have stopped the recidivism in my family. Social services and sustainable diversion programs should always be the alternative to incarceration. If there is more care instead of cages, not only will it help end mass incarceration, but our communities will be safer and healthier.” 

Of the top charges involved in arrests and bookings into the Harris County Jail, two are associated with driving without proper documentation. Combined, Failure to Maintain Financial Responsibility (No insurance) and No Driver’s License charges were the most common charges among Harris County bookings over the studied period. 

“We’re fighting for a Texas that recognizes the role of institutional racism in our justice system and puts an immediate stop to pretextual stops of Black and brown communities,” said Annette Price, acting executive co-director for Grassroots Leadership. “The failed ‘War on Drugs’ skyrocketed the mass incarceration crisis we have on our hands. This has done irrevocable damage to our communities and families—it’s time for our communities to heal.”

Houston is the third-largest city and one of the most diverse cities in the country. Incarcerating nearly 9,000 people per night, the Harris County jail is larger than the prison systems in 19 states and is the largest jail system in the most incarcerated state in the most incarcerated nation on earth.

The report has been made available at grassrootsleadership.org/carenotcages.

 
Contact: 

Maria Reza, mreza@grassrootsleadership.org