Texas Advocates for Justice speaks at Federal Court hearing regarding ending cash bail in Harris County

On October 28, 2019, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas held a final hearing on a historic agreement to put an end to Harris County’s unconstitutional bail practices.

Our lead Houston field organizer, Dianna Williams, gave a powerful testimony on why it's time for Harris County to invest in #CommunitiesNotCages. Read below.

Good morning, Your Honor.   

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to the Court about this critical issue.  My name is Dianna Williams, and I am a Criminal Justice Community Organizer with Texas Advocates for Justice.  Our members are individuals and families who have been impacted by mass incarceration and criminalization in Texas. We use our personal stories and direct experience with incarceration to build power and lead campaigns to transform the criminal justice system and build safe and healthy communities.

I’m going to talk a little bit about data because it is so revealing about why we are here today.  Because our organization works with justice-impacted people, I hope that I can be helpful by tying that data to our organization’s members' lived experiences.  And I hope everyone listening will realize that both the data and the lived experiences lead to the same conclusion: this settlement will make Harris County a better, safer place. 

40% of people charged with misdemeanors in Harris County served time in jail because they could not afford bail.  Those 40% charged with misdemeanors were deprived of their liberty simply for being poor. That is where we have to start.  It’s unconstitutional and it is wrong.  

Objectors have said that, regardless of how wrong this is, we have to continue such violations in the name of public safety.  But the fact is that the evidence shows us that money bail makes us less safe. There are at least four clear data points here, and two of them are out of Harris County.

  • In 2013, a study by the Arnold Foundation found the following:
    • When held 2-3 days, low-risk defendants are almost 40% more likely to commit new crimes before trial than equivalent defendants held no more than 24 hours.
    • When held 8-14 days, low-risk defendants are 51% more likely to commit another crime within two years after completion of their cases than equivalent defendants held no more than 24 hours.
    • Then in 2017, a report on the Harris County Bail System, in the Stanford Law Review, found that people held pretrial because they could not afford bail were 22% more likely to be rearrested the following year. 
  • So, it makes sense that when New Jersey ended money bail altogether, violent crime decreased 30%. 
  • And in 2018, after Harris County was  prevented from holding most people pretrial, violent crime dropped by 10%.

These numbers should come as no surprise to anyone.  What do we think happens when you lock someone away and deny someone access to their family, their community, their school, their job, even for a day or two?  

This brings us to where the data meets lived experience.  I’m going to share the stories of my family and two others’ in order to hopefully give the court an idea of the real impact here.

I’m first going to read directly the stories that two TAJ (Texas Advocates for Justice) members asked me to share.

The first story:

My brother got pulled over and had traffic ticket warrants. He was taken in and given a $5,000 bond. He had just moved into his own apartment months prior and got a dog named Hawk. After his arrest his mother had to decide if she would send off a payment for her daughter's college tuition or bond her son out who had just gotten to a place of some security. She was not able to bail out her son. This caused him to lose his car due to tow fees. He lost his apartment and Hawk because he sat so long in jail, not able to afford his bond.

The second story:

My husband was charged with misdemeanor terrorist threat when I was 6 months pregnant. I could not afford to bond him out due to the fact that both our incomes were needed to pay bills. He stayed in jail while his court date got reset time and time again. I  sunk into this deep depression and went on to have a premature child. I received my tax refund soon after having our baby and used it to bond him out. We used the remainder of the money to get an attorney who later got the charges dismissed. I never actually told anyone this story until now. I realized that the child he and I created during that tough time was the best thing for this earth. She is strong and beautiful but the harm caused by cash bonds is real and long lasting. My husband missed out on the moments most men wait for, the day they see their baby girl. I am so relieved to know this a part of this monster has been destroyed. 

And my family’s story:

Being stopped, detained, arrested and put in jail for days at a time, feeling hopeless  from fear of losing your car, job, family relationships, and made to feel guilty before even being  convicted of a crime. I know that agony, because incarceration does not only affect the person detained, it affects the family as well. I lived through generations of close family members being placed into the criminal justice system for low level offenses.  My father. My brother. My son. All were drug related offenses. Money for cash bail was never an option in my family, we didn’t have it. We lived paycheck to paycheck, much like a lot of folk still do. Because of that, it was always less of a hardship to leave our family member in jail to “sit it out,” not realizing the collateral damage that thought process carried both emotionally and financially for the family.  

At age 61, having lived 50 years through the process of having my family members locked up for drug charges; having them have to wait for a judge to hear the case or some legal representation to be provided, I see the damage very clearly.  Those misdemeanor arrests my family endured would have been best handled as public health issues with alternative solutions to arrests and pre-trial detainment. It would have stopped the recidivism in my family had the family structure not been penalized for lack of good judgment by our family member. In my family’s case, the misdemeanor low-level arrests and detainments of the past will continue to have a huge impact on my family wellness.

And so before I close, I want to talk about one more place where data and real-life come together.  And where the destruction of families also means the destruction of public safety.  

Numerous studies have shown that incarcerating someone increases the likelihood that their child will end up involved in crime.  My family is a perfect example. Remember my father. My brother. My son.

And when you consider that pretrial detention leads to a higher likelihood of being convicted, and longer sentences, these impacts are all compounded, because that child’s parent — if detained pretrial — is more likely to stay incarcerated, and for a longer time.

Had all the people I talked about not been in systems with money bail, their outcomes may have been very different.  And so now we have a choice. We have an opportunity to show our true priorities. Do we choose to spend funds per day to jail someone in Harris County — when it clearly is not working — or do we choose to save that money and put it into programming — like treatment, housing, employment opportunities, mental health services — that actually improve lives and reduces crime instead.

I think the choice is obvious.  I thank the Court for its time, and for the thoughtful attention you have already devoted to this matter.