Photo By: Center for Justice Research
The Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University Examines the Financial Impact of Harris County’s Warrant Forgiveness Program
As jails across the country deal with overcrowding, racial disparities, and class-based challenges, Harris County hosted the second of several warrant expungement programs in July 2018. The program was a success with over 1,200 individuals in attendance to have their records cleared. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg’s goal was to use law enforcement resources more effectively by riding the system of outstanding non-violent misdemeanor warrants, allowing the county to refocus their resources on the crimes that present the greatest harm to public safety. Despite beginning at 8:30 a.m., the line wrapped around North Shore High School as early as an hour before the doors opened. The line consisted of men and women of all ages, but it was clear that Blacks and Hispanics represented a majority of those seeking expungement. As individuals filled the building, there were sighs of relief as individuals left knowing that they no longer had to look over their shoulders out of fear of being arrested for low-level, non-violent offenses. In fact, one participant said they were “dodging” the police since 2004 due to their inability to pay for a warrant that resulted from a $150 traffic ticket. Another participant shared that she could not take care of her outstanding warrant due to lack of child care during court hours.
Harris County, Texas, is the third most populous county in the United States with a population of approximately 4.6 million. Harris County has a diverse population, consisting of 30.4 percent Whites, 42.4 percent Hispanics, 19.7 percent Blacks, 7.2 percent Asians, and 1.1 percent American Indian.
The Harris County Jail population of around 9,000 inmates daily does not reflect the county’s demographic proportions. Blacks consistently represent 50 percent of all individuals booked into the jail, despite comprising just 19.7 percent of the jurisdiction’s population. Harris County has spent $7.2 million dollars defending unconstitutional bail practices, resulting in the county being prohibited from detaining poor defendants for low level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses.
Nationally, $22.2 billion is spent to operate county jails. In Harris County, it costs approximately $375,000 a day to house the entire pretrial population (inmates awaiting trial or unable to make bond). Additionally, It costs approximately $24,000 per day to incarcerate pretrial misdemeanor defendants. Moreover, approximately 42 percent of the pretrial detention population in the Harris County jail are accused of non-violent crimes. Nevertheless, there is a need for front-end criminal justice alternatives for low-level misdemeanor offenders who do not pose harm to the public. It should be noted that Harris County is in the final days of completing its new $100 million jail facility that will allow for a two-fold increase in yearly intakes from its current 120,000 to processing 240,000 defendants.
The recent “Make it Right” warrant expungement event in July screened 350 individuals. Of the 238 people who received counsel on matters of their criminal background, 87 persons sought advice about identification restoration matters, resulting in 67 criminal records erased. This led to 42 individuals having no active warrants, allowing them to avoid the financial burden of court fees and save them from living in fear of arrest. For those warrants being removed, there was a total estimated savings (fines and fees waived) to citizens in Harris County of $323,250.
It is critical that we ensure that policies reduce, not create, problems for individuals. To do so, reasoned and measured approaches are required. As a result of the continued attention to the relationship between income and a person’s criminal history, we suggest that more local criminal justice systems follow the lead of Harris County’s harm reduction efforts that maintain public safety and find alternatives to incarceration for low-level, misdemeanor warrants. Counties that have a significant backlog of these kinds of warrants should conduct a cost-benefit analysis, where they are better able to determine the usefulness of a warrant removal program that maintains public safety. Those counties that choose to do so should be nationally recognized as model systems of reform.
Due to the problem of jail overcrowding, in addition to several class action lawsuits across the nation, we urge additional counties to examine their low-level, non-violent active warrant population and consider a less harsh approach similar to Harris County. The Center for Justice Research recommends the following questions for consideration:
- What are the individual and case characteristics of those who were eligible for the program?
- What are the circumstances that increase the likelihood of an individual having a warrant issued for their arrest?
- How feasible is it to utilize advancements in technology and automatically dismiss outstanding warrants for low-level, non-violent offenses that are an unnecessary financial burden on the county criminal justice system?
- What are the sentiments for the decriminalization of burdensome financial sanctions on the socioeconomically disadvantaged that most often come under the scrutiny of the criminal justice system?
Harris County’s warrant forgiveness program clearly unburdens people who are systematically disadvantaged by the criminal justice system. As part of the Center for Justice Research’s mission to reform the system, other counties will hopefully adopt similar policies.