How Harris County’s Successful Pretrial Reforms Suffered a Misinformation ‘Pandemic’

A Texas Center for Justice and Equity report shows how bias in the media contributed to a calculated campaign defending wealth-based detention.

By Matt Keyser
National Partnership for Pretrial Justice
Published: Dec. 16, 2021

In 2019, a federal judge ruled that Harris County’s misdemeanor bond system was unconstitutionally keeping people stuck in jail before trial simply because they couldn’t afford to pay for their freedom.

The county revamped its misdemeanor system to create a presumption of release for most low-level cases. In response, reform opponents unleashed a full-fledged attack in the press.

“Houston police chief, victims’ advocates angered by cases of accused murderers released on multiple bonds,” read a headline on Houston’s NBC affiliate.

“Robber who killed 80-year-old Houston woman was out on bond,” another headline read from the CBS affiliate.

The Fox TV affiliate collaborated with Crime Stoppers, a local affiliate of the national non-profit organization that aims to reduce crime, to launch a series showcasing people charged with crimes while released on bond.

Nearly all of these cases involved people who paid money bond in the felony courts, which were not subject to the misdemeanor reforms and have not undergone any systemic changes.

Meanwhile, federal monitors found that the misdemeanor reforms were overwhelmingly successful. People were appearing for court dates, time spent in jail plummeted, dismissal rates doubled, and recidivism rates were unchanged.

So why did pundits and politicians claim a bail reform catastrophe?

The Texas Center for Justice and Equity released a report in November that details how “bias in the media” and a calculated misinformation campaign promoted misleading narratives about pretrial practices.

“Covering an arrest before the trial has the potential to completely mislead the public as to what’s going on,” said Jay Jenkins, Harris County Project Attorney at the TCJE. “And after you do it for decades and decades, you end up with a system where the public is associating an arrest with guilt right off the bat.”

We spoke with Jenkins, Project Associate Elaine Hennig, and Project Fellow Benjamin Greaves about the spread of misinformation about Harris County’s pretrial reform and how media can deliver more balanced coverage of the criminal justice system.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

NPPJ: Your report is titled “The Real ‘Bond Pandemic.’” What does that mean?

Benjamin Greaves: The title originates from one of the phrases used by a key source of misleading, negative coverage: Crime Stoppers. They frequently refer to a “bond pandemic” as the threat to public safety posed by bail reform. However, in our analysis and just looking through all of the local news articles and the trends that we see, we define the “bond pandemic” as a pandemic of biased news coverage that is not reporting on this in an accurate way.

Elaine Hennig: I think our use of the term “bond pandemic” is a reflection of the fact that the news media often parrots the narratives of reform opponents directly and does not provide much context or alternative points of view. They’re just printing exactly what these opponents such as Crime Stoppers, the DA’s office, or [former Houston police chief] Art Acevedo are putting out there.

NPPJ: Journalists are taught to report all sides of the story, but often criminal justice reporters take the police or the district attorney or whomever their word. Rarely do we hear from the other side.

EH: Ben did a great job in the report of explaining why police are not necessarily an objective source. I had to think critically about why we can’t just quote the police directly and assume that’s an objective point of view, because common sense says they’re the ones who are there and they should have the most information. And they do have important information, but we also know they present things from their own perspective.

NPPJ: Ben, I’m curious to hear more from you about why media needs to get perspectives from outside the criminal justice system.

BG: One of the things that was especially revealing—at least for me—was the extent to which so many cases are dismissed in Harris County. In the timeframe we looked at there were almost as many dismissals as there were guilty convictions in Harris County [in 2020, the report notes, there were 8,270 case dismissals and 8,278 convictions]. These high dismissal rates call into question whether you can rely on accounts that almost exclusively focus on the arrest as an accurate depiction of the criminal justice system.

NPPJ: In the report, you note a correlation between media coverage of a case and an increased likelihood it will be dismissed. Why is that?

EH: We went through and looked at 71 people covered who were alleged to have committed a new crime while out on bond. First, the majority of the people covered in these articles are Black. There are also a lot of mugshots in these stories. And the name of the person is reprinted over and over. So the public gets a skewed image of who is actually out on bond. And it gives this idea that everybody who is released is getting arrested, which is definitely not true. We know that from data.

A lot of the published stories cover a person on bond who is involved in a homicide. The rate we found was 60 percent of the articles. But when we actually compare it to the total number of the people who are released on bond, less than 1 percent are involved in homicides—and that’s just an arrest involving homicide, not a conviction. The fact that they’re focusing on arrest—and often the worst-of-the-worst arrests in the public’s eyes—just to generate fear is the main problem.

NPPJ: That’s something you often see in news coverage not only in Houston but nationwide. You turn on the 6 or 10 o’clock news and it’s breaking crime. And when they mention bond status they don’t say whether it was a PR bond, part of a reformed system or a cash bond status quo.

EH: Reform opponents they like to have it both ways. They will criticize when it is a PR bond and say the accused was released after paying nothing. But at the same time, if someone does pay their bond and they get out, then those same opponents will say, “Why was their bond only set at $100,000?” They find ways to criticize the system no matter what type of bond is given. They want to give the idea that all kinds of pretrial release are bad when you’re dealing with “dangerous, repeat offenders.” Which is a questionable claim in the first place, because they haven’t been convicted of a crime, so they might be found innocent in the end.

[[Read more: Media Wants to Cover People. Alec Karakatsanis Thinks Systems are More Interesting.]]

NPPJ: Speaking of criticism, most of the criticism of bail reform in Harris County focuses on felony cases. But there hasn’t been felony bail reform in Harris County—only misdemeanor reform, which has been largely lauded as successful.

BG: If your goal is to make the public more concerned about misdemeanor reform—which, as you mentioned, has been largely successful—and you want to sway public opinion against that, then I think conflating it with felony cases, which err on being more serious charges, would be an effective way to do that.

When you look at the amount of negative coverage that resulted in that narrative, there were certainly a fair amount of articles that would encourage people, regardless of your view, to contact your state representatives and tell them this is something that’s concerning to you.

NPPJ: We mentioned Crime Stoppers earlier, which is a national non-profit organization that says it aims to reduce crime, according to its website. But Elaine, you found they actually have a financial stake in the criminal justice system.

EH: We found that Crime Stoppers receives a percentage of all court fees from convicted people. That’s in state law. And in addition to that, there’s a $50 Crime Stoppers fee that judges may require anyone on probation to pay.

Uncovering that financial incentive made us really curious. And I was doing a little digging. They started a partnership with the KRIV [the Fox TV affiliate in Houston] on a Breaking Bond series, where Crime Stoppers partners with the station on a segment that regularly relies on the same false narratives around bail and public safety issues. Around the same time they launched that series, there was another article posted that described how Crime Stoppers was struggling financially for the first time and they were having to solicit donations. And they said—their CEO claimed—it was because judges had decided to stop requiring that people on probation pay this fee.

So you can see how these two events align. Crime Stoppers tries to generate fear of crime to educate the public as they claim. Generating fear of crime justifies more activity for the criminal justice system, and Crime Stoppers financially benefits from that activity.

NPPJ: Almost any time someone shakes up the status quo, there is a concerted effort by those who have long benefited from the current system to oppose those changes. Given that pattern, how can reporters provide better coverage of the criminal justice system? 

EH: At the very least balance should be the key. We recommend that reporters include more community voices. If reporters are going to quote someone from Crime Stoppers or law enforcement, then at least offer some context through the perspective of men and women impacted by the harms of the criminal justice system. These articles often try to show how pretrial release harms the community, but they neglect to show how pretrial incarceration harms the community as well.

BG: Another recommendation is to get away from breaking crime coverage. One of the things we found is a lot of “neutral” coverage will report on events taking place and the reporter will add in a detail that a person involved was out on bond. That is not always a relevant detail. But when you constantly add that information, it leads to over-coverage that may make crimes allegedly committed by people out on bond seem more of a widespread issue than it actually is.

NPPJ: It is as if news stories convict a person before they have had their day in court.

JJ: Some news outlets have explicitly begun to avoid bad practices. If it is not a case of heightened public concern then they won’t report the name of the person charged unless they intend to have a follow-up story on how the case turned out.

Some places—the Houston Chronicle, for example—have even gotten rid of their mugshot galleries. There is a heightened sensitivity to this in the media. But it’s going to take a lot more to get balanced coverage given how these stories have been so one-sided for so long.