A rise in violent crime in Harris County has local officials urgently seeking solutions to combat the trend. However, a debate over the origins of the increase—including a 43% year-to-date increase in murder and a 33% increase in aggravated assaults—has sparked questions of exactly what is to blame and what should be done.
Some law enforcement and elected officials have attributed the rise in murders to a mix of the COVID-19 pandemic and bail bond practices in the county. At the same time, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has made fixing what he called a “broken” bail bond system an emergency item during the 87th Texas Legislature, citing the increasing crime rates as evidence of a problem.
But when it comes to the actual bail reform to have taken place in Harris County—which has exclusively pertained to misdemeanors—a recent study presents evidence there is no compelling relationship between misdemeanor bail reform and the violent crime trends, said Colin Cepuran, a senior justice research policy analyst with the Harris County Justice Administration Department, which presented findings from the study to Harris County commissioners on March 1.
“If you had to lead me to guess which way the relationship pointed, I would say ... there is some evidence that misdemeanor bail reform may have actually contributed to public safety during this unparalleled time of economic and public health deprivation in Harris County,” Cepuran said.
Crime in the Cy-Fair area has increased at a rate relatively slower to other parts of the county, with murders remaining largely flat and some areas along Hwy. 290 and FM 1960 seeing upticks in aggravated assaults.
Critics of the county’s bail practices said it has less to do with misdemeanor bail reform and more with bond decisions made by felony court judges. As some state legislators look to make it harder for certain offenders to be let out on bond, county officials are pushing for a more restorative approach to crime, including programs directed at helping crime survivors heal and intervening in violent crime before it can be committed.
At a March 30 commissioners court meeting, commissioners also voted unanimously to provide $3 million to the Harris County Sheriff's Office for overtime pay to help investigators target violent criminals in several key areas, including domestic violence and child abuse, both of which have been on the rise during the pandemic.
The county’s efforts mirror a trend in criminal justice that can be seen across the U.S., said Chelsey Narvey, an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology at Sam Houston State University.
"There definitely is, more generally within criminal justice, a trend toward a more restorative justice approach where we think about the victims, the causes of crime and what a specific individual might need in order to help them not commit a crime again,” she said.
Diving into the data
Violent crimes in the county such as murder and aggravated assault rose between 2019 and 2020, while robberies saw a smaller increase, and sexual assaults dropped, according to the justice administration department study.
Harris County, including the city of Houston, saw 276 charges/cases of murder in 2019 and 389 in 2020, according to the study. Charges of aggravated assaults increased from 3,284 in 2019 to more than 5,000 in 2020.
Data cited in the JAD report is sourced from the Integrated Justice Information Management System, officials said, and is a count of the total charges and cases for each crime. Law enforcement agencies like the Houston Police Department, by contrast, typically track data by total incidents. For example, the Houston Police Department reported 400 incidents of murder in 2020, while the JAD report cited 389 charges/cases of murder in the county as a whole that year.
Harris County started to reform its misdemeanor bail bond practices in 2017 after a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction ruling the county was unconstitutionally holding people in jail pretrial for being unable to afford bail. After a lawsuit was settled in 2019, the county was required to start releasing most nonviolent misdemeanor arrestees on general order bonds.
However, exceptions were made for those arrested for domestic violence, repeated DWI and arrests while out on bond.
The study showed similar crime trends taking place in Dallas, Chicago and Los Angeles—places where no bail reform has taken place.
A study of the timing of the crime increase, the coronavirus pandemic and the use of unsecured bonds further suggested the pandemic to be the main factor, Cepuran said. A separate report by a court-appointed monitor tracking the county’s misdemeanor bail reform efforts showed rates of recidivism were either steady or declined among misdemeanor offenders between 2015 and 2019.
“The socioeconomic pressures that Harris County residents [face] and increases in COVID-19 cases are both positively associated with increases in murders the next month,” he said. “The greater use of unsecured bonds—the principal effect of bail reform—actually is associated with a decrease in murders the next month.”
A complex problem
Among the critics of the county’s bail practices is state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, who filed Senate Bill 532 in the state Legislature in February. Bettencourt, who represents the northwest Houston area, said the bill would prohibit judges from giving out personal recognizance bonds—bonds where no money is put up—to anyone arrested while already out on one or anyone arrested for a felony charge if they already have two or more felony charges pending.
At a February press conference to announce the bill, Bettencourt criticized felony court judges for handing out low-cost bonds “like popcorn.”
“This situation has to stop,” Bettencourt said. “While I’m filing a bill today ... I am calling on the judges in Harris County to stop this today.”
Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman—whose office covers parts of Cy-Fair east of Hwy. 290—also said bail bond practices have led to more criminals on the streets.
“You’ve got judges down there giving these ridiculously low bonds. It’s like a revolving-door process down there,” Herman said. “We’re arresting someone for DWI, and then three nights later we’re arresting the same person again.”
State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, also filed Senate Bill 21, which is intended to make it more difficult for people accused of violent offenses to get out on bail. Cepuran, while testifying in a March 18 committee hearing on the bill, said he feared it would overwhelm Harris County’s jail and leave the county exposed to costly litigation such as the 2016 lawsuit over misdemeanor bail.
Huffman said the bill is a work in progress, and she expects the language to change throughout the legislative process to ensure compliance with federal court decisions.
Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said she supported the “spirit” of SB 21 at the hearing, arguing too many repeat offenders in Harris County are receiving multiple bonds and committing increasingly more serious crimes. In 2015, roughly 3,200 people on bond committed 6,348 new crimes in Harris County, while in 2020, roughly 10,500 people on bond committed 18,796 new offenses, she said. Ogg also presented data showing 1,097 violent offenders were released on PR bonds in 2020, up from 239 in 2018.
“I believe in the concept and the constitutional right of an individual to be free, but it’s got to be balanced with the public’s safety,” Ogg said.
At the March 30 meeting, Harris County commissioners voted along party lines on a resolution condemning SB 21 and calling on lawmakers to "pass legislation that meaningfully improves public safety and serves justice."
Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia expressed concerns similar to Cepuran's arguing the bill would expose the county to litigation and would come with a large cost burden. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the bill was being pushed based on "cherry-picked" data and expressed concerns about language in the bill denying PR bonds to anyone who failed to appear in court over the prior two years while on a PR bond.
"It may be a tiny minor thing you didn't show up for. Maybe you couldn't show up because you have a job so you could feed your children because you are a young mother. We have stories like that all the time."
Precinct 3 and Precinct 4 commissioners Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed the motion. Ramsey—who made combating the increase in violent crime a key part of his campaign before being elected in November—initially proposed a resolution backing SB 21, arguing the legislation was critical to the safety of Harris County residents.
"When a violent offender is let out on a low PR bond, and they go into a neighborhood and do bad things, that's not good," Ramsey said. "I think we're better than that, so I'd hope we could reach some kind of ability to address those kinds of things."
JAD officials said the county is working to determine what information judges have available to them when deciding how to set bonds. Both Cepuran and Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said addressing a backlog in cases would also help cases be more successfully prosecuted.
People who work in and study domestic violence said a noted increase in incidents can likely be tied to the coronavirus pandemic. Although no academic research has been done in the Houston area, research Narvey conducted looking at the Dallas area has suggested a roughly 8% increase in incidents of domestic violence since the pandemic began last March.
Domestic violence and marital stress in general are also tied to unemployment, said Cortnee Wright, clinical director with the Cy-Fair nonprofit Shield Bearer, which provides counseling services. An uptick in mental health issues and substance use during the pandemic is also a factor, she said.
“When all those things combine, it’s a powder keg,” she said.
Violence interruption, survivor outreach
In their March report, members of the county’s justice administration department also presented thoughts on how the rise in crime can be addressed.
The department’s programs in the works focus on violence interruption and helping survivors of crime, methods that are intended to address the increase in violent crime at its roots, Deputy Director Ana Yáñez Correa said. She said strengthening infrastructure to make sure people have their basic needs met is a crucial part of addressing the issue.
“Instinctively, we think the way to stop a behavior from happening is by saying, ‘If you do this, this is going to be the consequence,’” she said. “If the threat of having a felony was as effective as people have instinctively thought, then we probably would not see the increase on these types of crimes.”
At the March 1 meeting where the report was presented, Ramsey stressed the urgency of the situation.
“The single mom with two children in an underserved neighborhood, she can’t wait for us to do a two- or three-year program,” Ramsey said.
A study into violence interruption is nearing completion, Cepuran said. Programs will work to intervene at the moment individuals are most likely to experience or perpetrate violence and just after individuals experienced violence, he said.
“These programs make use of individuals who are, due to their social experience or background, going to be considered credible messengers,” he said. “And [they will] encourage those individuals who are potentially just about to perpetrate or have just experienced violence to desist from actually engaging in that violence,” Cepuran said.
From there, individuals will be connected to case managers and social resources to help address the longer-term social pressures that cause violence to be repeated, Cepuran said.
Other JAD efforts focus on how to provide additional resources to survivors of crime, and Yáñez Correa said JAD is developing a memo on solutions to address family violence. One proposal involves creating trauma centers in parts of the county that have been most impacted by crime, where survivors would be able to heal and get resources.
As more people are vaccinated, Narvey said the trend could also be alleviated by the resumption of face-to face services for offenders and survivors that typically help steer people away from violent acts.
“As we move forward and the ... rehabilitation and treatment programming starts to pick back up again, we might hopefully see that the recent uptick in crime starts to trend down,” she said.