March 6, 2020 — A federal judge has appointed University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson to serve as an independent monitor of the landmark Harris County bail settlement that could serve as a national model for cash bail reform.
Thompson and two other academics selected by Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas will monitor the effectiveness of the recently implemented bail policy over a seven-year period.
Rosenthal in 2017 struck down the county’s policy of jailing misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial if they were unable to post bond. The county’s appeal was denied and an agreement for procedures to release eligible defendants on personal recognizance bonds was reached in 2019.
“In the short run, the consent decree will ensure that people who are arrested for non-violent, low-level offenses will not suffer the trauma and upheaval of being in jail solely because they are too poor to pay a cash bail,” said Thompson who will serve as deputy monitor. “This change in policy protects public safety, saves taxpayer dollars and protects the constitutional rights of individuals.
“In the long run,” she added, “we look forward to working with a diverse group of stakeholders to help make Harris County’s pretrial justice system a model for the nation.”
Thompson, Newell H. Blakely Professor of Law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the Law Center, will oversee outreach and engagement efforts including a community working group consisting of individuals representing diverse constituencies affected by the bail system, including retired law enforcement officials, people who provide services to indigent individuals released pretrial, representatives of the business community, and local organizers and activists.
The monitorship will be guided by nine principles derived from the consent decree: transparency; accountability; permanency; the protection of constitutional rights; racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic fairness; public safety and effective law enforcement; maximizing liberty; cost and process efficiency; and demonstrated effectiveness.
Professor Brandon Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law and faculty director of the Duke Center for Science and Justice, will direct the project team which also includes Dr. Dottie Carmichael of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University.
“Sandy Thompson and I are so fortunate to be collaborating with a diverse team of collaborators at Duke and at Texas A&M, which will include experts in analysis of pretrial data, qualitative and quantitative methods, the economics of crime, indigent defense best practices, wrongful convictions, and behavioral health,” Garrett said.