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Federal judge orders indigent defendants released, as recommended by Quattrone Center study

May 02, 2017

In response to a lawsuit filed by two civil rights groups, and in the wake of a recent study by researchers at Penn Law’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice analyzing the consequences of pretrial detention, a federal judge in Houston has ordered Harris County to begin releasing inmates arrested for misdemeanor offenses who cannot afford to pay bail.

The July 2016 study of pretrial detention in Harris County, conducted by Quattrone Center academic director Paul Heaton and Center fellows Sandra Mayson and Megan Stevenson, found that defendants subject to pretrial detention were more likely to be convicted and less likely to receive favorable plea terms. In addition, those subject to pretrial detention were more likely to commit crimes after their release.

Based on the study’s findings, the Center recommended reducing reliance on cash bail in misdemeanors and other non-violent, low-level offenses. Citing Penn Law’s research, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered such a change in an April 28 preliminary injunction.

“This decision is clearly a step in the right direction,” said Heaton. “Bail schedules like the one in Harris County disproportionately harm the poor and don’t protect public safety. Our analysis shows that reducing pretrial detention for those accused of low-level crimes not only saves taxpayers money on incarceration, but also reduces future crime.”

The decision was also praised by numerous criminal justice stakeholders in the county. “The federal judge’s ruling is a positive first step toward bringing long overdue changes to a criminal justice system in need of reform,” said Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez in a statement following the decision. “People charged with non-violent, misdemeanor crimes should not be locked up in jail just because they cannot afford to make bail. Jailing those who have only been charged with a non-violent crime hurts families and places an unnecessary burden on taxpayers who bear the cost of their incarceration.”

In addition to the Harris County study, Stevenson also examined pretrial detention in Philadelphia, coming to similar conclusions. Cash bail has become a topic of increased debate nationwide, as criminal justice reformers aim to ameliorate the harm to indigent defendants and fiscal conservatives work to rein in the increasing costs of incarceration.

The Quattrone Center is a national research and policy hub created to catalyze long term structural improvements to the U.S. criminal justice system. The Center takes an interdisciplinary, data-driven, scientific approach to identifying and analyzing the most crucial problems in the justice system, and proposing solutions that prevent error and improve fairness. Its research and programs are independent and unbiased, engaging all system stakeholders to effect change for the better.