Harris County to make justice system 'fairer' for poor and minority arrestees

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Changes coming the Harris County justice system, Ted Oberg reports. (KTRK)

Harris County is just 18 percent African American, but on any given night 48 percent of the people sleeping inside the Harris County jail are African American. The disparity is at the heart of the reason Harris County wants to change its current system.

"It's not an admission of anything, it's a recognition we are in America," Harris County Commissioner Gene Locke said. "I don't want the story line on Channel 13 to be Harris County admits it had racial bias and has to bring this program out to fix things. I want the story to be Harris County is working to make sure this justice system works for everybody."

Leaders from across the Criminal Justice system from the Houston Mayor and Police Chief to the Sheriff, judges and DA all pledged Wednesday afternoon to make changes. The county announced it won a $2 million MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice grant. According to the team, the purpose of the grant is to "safely reduce Harris County's jail population and address racial and ethnic disparities in the justice system."

The grant will create a "Reintegration Impact Court." DA Devon Anderson told abc13 the court will handle all drug possession (less than 4g), prostitution (4th offense) and retail theft cases with the goal of getting the offenders into a treatment program instead of a quick plea, sentence and jail stay.

"The recidivism (re-arrest) rate for this population is 75 percent. So what we are doing now is failing. We need to try something new," Anderson said.

The court will be up and running shortly but will need extra funding from Harris County to keep it operating. That is not expected to be difficult. Two of the four county commissioners were at Wednesday's announcement and support the move.

The grant will also:
- Hire staffers to train all levels of the criminal justice system to look for and address racial & economic bias;
- Add a staffer to specifically address cases that have languished on court dockets for more than a year;
- Increase opportunities to divert cases to treatment programs instead of jail.

All of it is aimed to reduce the current jail population of 9000+ inmates by 1800 over the next three years. The grant application was submitted by the Harris County Criminal Justice Coordinating committee founded by the late Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee.
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