In 2017, U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal held in an historic ruling that Harris County’s misdemeanor bond system was unconstitutional, given that wealth was the primary factor in pretrial release. As part of the resulting settlement, Harris County now requires the release of the majority of misdemeanor defendants on personal recognizance bonds, which do not require an upfront cash payment.
Harris County’s implemented reforms ensure that defendants are not prematurely punished with jail time—upholding the principle of a ‘presumption of innocence’ for the criminally accused, and preventing taxpayers from footing the bill for unnecessary weeks or months of incarceration. Multiple reports from the court’s federal oversight monitor have documented the successful changes made to the bond system.
Though Harris County continues to reap the benefits of a fairer, less discriminatory system, many county residents continue to be in the dark as to these meaningful improvements. Despite the positive numbers reported by the court monitor, a counter-narrative has emerged. This counter-narrative—that bond reform lets dangerous individuals out of jail, negatively impacting on public safety—has been propagated by much of the local media, including the local television news.
The Texas Center for Justice and Equity (TCJE) has created a report series to analyze the local media’s coverage of bond in Harris County and better understand their role in shaping the false counter-narrative that bond reform and pretrial release are dangerous.
Part I: Analysis of Local TV Stations
Part II: Analysis of the Houston Chronicle