Public Attitudes On Houston’s Criminal Justice Reform Efforts – OpEd

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Focus group examines community-led recommendations for reforming Houston’s criminal justice system. 

After mass protests, unprecedented shifts in the expectations of democratic policing, and accountability standards, we have yet to provide the solutions needed to create a criminal legal system that does not discriminate against Black, Brown, and poor persons, while at the same time, protects and serves all.  What is it about our system of justice that incarcerates 2 million of its citizens with Black and Brown persons being 3 times more likely than white Americans to be controlled by the criminal justice system?   How do we deal with a  system where police kill Black and Hispanic persons at a rate 3-4 times whites?  

To better understand community sentiment around these issues, we decided to convene 6 focus groups of marginalized Houstonians from various neighborhoods in the city, with participants ranging in age from 18-71,  various racial/ethnic groups, educational levels, political affiliations, and socioeconomic backgrounds.

We provide an overview of what these focus groups feel are the solutions to criminal justice and police reforms in Houston. Five common themes were identified.  

Takeaway #1: There is overwhelming support for preventing the use of lethal force by police officers if a lesser level of force could have been invoked.

Our focus group attendees were asked to indicate their support or opposition to: 1.) banning the use of chokeholds, 2.) requiring officers to intervene and rendering aid if another officer is using excessive force, and 3.) limiting the immunity of police officers from civil lawsuits and harassment for fine-only offenses.

There was unanimous support for all three instances. 

“We have to break down the systems that allow them to support the bad apple narrative. There has to be some actionable policy around what is required of them when they see something that is going against departmental policy,” stated one participant. 

Takeaway #2: Additional areas of criminal justice reform received majority support – within reason. 

Outside of lethal force reform, focus group participants were asked to identify their support or opposition of other important criminal reform measures that are frequently brought up in national conversations. 

Other areas within criminal justice reform that garnered majority support from the focus group participants included:

  1. Strengthening required law enforcement training related to conflict de-escalation and use of force
  2. Banning no-knock warrants under which officers can break into homes without warning
  3. Reducing punishment for possessions of small amounts of marijuana to a citation, such as a traffic ticket and a fine of $250

The majority of the participants believed we should end arrest for fine-only offenses, like minor traffic violations and disorderly conduct,depending on the offense as it can escalate quickly. 

Additionally, many believed we should allowmost people charged with misdemeanor crimes to be automatically released from jail on no-cash bonds where defendants promise to return to court on their scheduled trial date. However, this depended on the misdemeanor itself and arrest patterns.

Takeaway #3: Small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal in the state of Texas.

When asked their opinions of the legalization of marijuana possession in Texas, the majority of participants agreed that small amounts of marijuana for any purpose should be legal. Only one respondent indicated it should be only in possession for medicinal purposes with a prescription.

“Marijuana possession has been criminalized too much, and it’s been penalized too much,” said another participant. 

Takeaway #4: Zero tolerance for a cash bail system for low-level offenses.

The focus group participants fully agreed the cash bail systems for low-level offenses should be ended. 

“The small man who doesn’t have enough money to hire a lawyer to fight it is going to always lose because now it’s not a matter of justice, it’s a matter of capitalism,” stated a participant. 

“The financial aspect goes beyond being able to pay to get your way out. It’s that you can’t even afford to miss work. People are losing jobs, they’re not able to pay bills afterward for low-level offenses because they can’t pay the bail and now, they’re locked up and they’ve lost the job that they had to get paid,” agreed another participant. 

Takeaway #5: Violence is on the rise – across the country, not just in Harris County – and only time will tell what happens after the pandemic. 

When it comes to the increase in violence, all participants believed it was simply an uptick and not fully related to bail reform. 

“They legalized the wild wild west in Texas. So, you can’t look at the bond in an isolated way from causation and instead must look at the fact that you made it easier to get a weapon,” said another participant.

Additionally, all participants believe homicide rates have risen across the country, not just in Harris County, including in many counties where no changes to bail policies were made. And, most believed the spike in homicide rates was the result of the pandemic but were not convinced on what would happen when the pandemic ends.

“We are living in a very different time and because of that, people are acting out. This pandemic isn’t going anywhere any time soon, so only time will tell whether those rates will go down once the pandemic has ended,” concluded a participant. 

In reaction to the longstanding epidemic of police misconduct and a criminal legal system that has never not been at odds with democratic principles, communities are demanding inclusion, improvements, and accountability. System-wide change cannot happen without in-depth inclusion  of the community. By listening to members of marginalized communities excluded from social, economic, and educational decision making opportunities, our community responsive focus groups provided a chance to uncover personal attitudes, beliefs and recommendations that continue to be excluded from the dialogue. Essentially the takeaways from these conversations should be used to improve communication, trust and engagement between the community and the criminal legal system. To advance a system of justice, diversity in decision-making is a necessity.

Howard Henderson, PhD is the founding director of the Center for Justice Research and Professor of Justice Administration at Texas Southern University. His research focuses on structural and cultural predictors of criminal justice system disparities. 

Jennifer Bourgeois, PhD is a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Justice Research. Her research focuses on risk and resilient factors associated with children impacted by parental incarceration and the intersection of race, class, and gender disparity within the criminal justice system.

Howard Henderson

Howard Henderson is a professor of justice administration and the founding director of the Center for Justice Research at Texas Southern University. His research focuses on structural and cultural predictors of criminal justice system disparities.

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