Harris County Justice Administration Department makes headway on countywide criminal justice studies

The Harris County Justice Administration Department is working to release final reports and launch pilot programs in early 2021. (Courtesy Fotolia)
The Harris County Justice Administration Department is working to release final reports and launch pilot programs in early 2021. (Courtesy Fotolia)

The Harris County Justice Administration Department is working to release final reports and launch pilot programs in early 2021. (Courtesy Fotolia)

In recent months, Harris County has launched studies into the county's criminal justice system with the hope of developing dashboards, pilot programs and initiatives to improve transparency and address disparities in the system.

On June 9, Harris County Commissioners Court approved 11 motions aimed to address the county’s criminal justice system. The motions were made following the death of George Floyd, a Houston native who died in police custody in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Ana Yáñez Correa, deputy director of the Harris County Justice Administration Department, said the department—which was directed to conduct the studies—partnered with consultants and collaborated with stakeholders to form preliminary reports. Preliminary reports were submitted to commissioners within 60 days of the June mandate; some of the reports the feasibility of creating a county-level emergency responder program and of creating an independent oversight board to investigate allegations of abuse of force.

"We are so committed to the transparency piece of this because in order for us to have solutions, we have to know where we are," she said. "And without the data, we can't really know where we are."

In early 2021, Correa said, HCJAD hopes to release the final versions of several studies and launch pilot programs with local law enforcement groups. Cost estimates and funding sources for implementing the programs were not included in the preliminary reports.

Meanwhile, some reports, such as studies on racial and ethnic disparities and noncriminal justice alternatives to incarceration, could take longer to compile. Correa said this is due to the intensive data collection required as well as restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, Correa said, the racial and ethnic disparities report requires data to be collected from all Harris County law enforcement agencies, which all record data on varying systems.

"What we've been trying to do is just get [law enforcement agencies] to a place where they can share information, we can analyze it, we can develop recommendations, [and] we can be a resource to them so that they have a landscape of the next steps and the next approach," she said.

The report will evaluate the extent to which racial and ethnic disparities exist in pre-arrests, arrests, criminal charges, assignment of legal counsel and pretrial release.

"We’re going to be able to present the causation of those racial disparities—but more importantly, the solutions,” Correa said. “[We will also be] tracking how those solutions are actually impacting people’s lives. I don’t know any other jurisdiction that’s doing that."

JAD has launched several dashboards since the county’s directive to increase transparency, including a court appointment dashboard in October and an indigent defense dashboard in November.

“We are taking a multipronged approach to fulfill these mandates,” she said. “We’re not just doing reports. ... As soon as we get data and we’re able to validate that data, we’re putting it in the public.”

Commissioners also directed the county’s eight constables meet with other agencies as well as JAD to develop a model use-of-force policy.

Harris County Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said via email that constables met for three months this fall to formalize the draft policy. He said constables will now coordinate with the sheriff, the district attorney, the fire marshal and the county attorney’s office for their input.
By Kelly Schafler

Editor, Lake Houston | Humble | Kingwood

Kelly Schafler is the editor for the Lake Houston, Humble and Kingwood edition of Community Impact Newspaper, covering public education, city government, development, businesses, local events and all things community-related. Before she became editor, she was the reporter for the Conroe and Montgomery edition for a year and a half.


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