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UH Law Center Professor Thompson discusses racial and ethnic justice, pretrial reform as part of webinar series

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University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, the Newell H. Blakely Chair and Director of the Criminal Justice Institute.

March 31, 2021 - University of Houston Law Center Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson spoke about why money bail is ineffective and how it disadvantages minorities during the third installment of “The Many Names of Slavery,” a course sponsored by The Houston Seminar.

“I’ve been working in this area for many, many years and it's a cause that I care deeply about and I really believe that if we study the issue closely, what we see is that we can have a system that works for the poor, works for the taxpayer, that keeps us safe,” Thompson, the Newell H. Blakely Chair, and Director of the Criminal Justice Institute, said. “But it has to be a rational system and I am really excited for the work we’re doing in Harris County right now.”

Thompson shared that the typical bail system that relies on money bail does not keep the most dangerous people in jail and free the least dangerous ones, but rather, regardless of the crime charged against them, bail keeps the poorest people in jail, such as homeless folks and mentally ill persons, while freeing wealthier people.

“If we set money bail based on the charged offense,” she said, “we inevitably get it wrong on who stays in jail and who gets released.”

Thompson said money bail created a significant racially disparate impact in Harris County, and noted that people of color have less pretrial releases than their white counterparts. The federal consent decree in misdemeanor cases has succeeded in reducing these disparities significantly.

She urged a change to the money bail system to focus instead on what risks an individual presents and set bail accordingly, rather than simply setting a dollar amount in every case.

“A decision to set a money bail is a decision to release,” she said. “That’s effectively a judge saying, ‘You can be released, as long as you pay a certain amount of money.’”

The Houston Seminar is a non-profit organization that hosts six to eight lecture series and tours every spring and fall. The organization aims to raise cultural awareness and encourage learning by sponsoring courses related to politics, social issues, and the arts.

“The Many Names of Slavery” is a course focused on incarceration being the cultural continuance of slavery and convict leasing and labor in Texas. The program is meant to create a deeper understanding of Texas history and race-based public policies.

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