Four takeaways from the ACLU jail population dashboard

In the United States, incarcerated people are five times more likely to contract COVID-19 and three times more likely to die of COVID-19 than the general population. In response to the pandemic, activists are calling for officials to reduce the jail population in order to keep everyone safe.

With a cash bail system, many people in Texas are detained in their county jail while awaiting trial because they cannot afford their bail. In fact, in Harris County, that describes about 75% of the people in jail. They are free to go, if they can pay for it.

The pandemic created a new intersection between criminal justice reform and public health equity. Should a pretrial detainee be subjected to greater risks of COVID-19 simply because of a cash bail system? How many people are in this situation? How can we use data to get a better understanding of this issue?

We worked with the ACLU of Texas to understand the numbers behind county jail populations across Texas. Using over twenty years of data from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, we built an interactive jail population dashboard that lets you explore data across the state, as well as model the financial impact of reducing the number of people in county jail. 

Want a summary? Here are four things that jumped out at us while we built the dashboard and researched these issues:

1. 3 in 4 people in Harris County jail are pretrial detainees

77% of people in Harris County Jail have criminal charges pending, but have not been convicted. These are people who were arrested, but are awaiting their trial and unable to pay the money required for their bail. That’s 6,799 people in jail who are waiting for a verdict. Since a scheduled hearing can take weeks or more from the time of arrest, the time spent in jail can lead to losing a job, a home, or even a family.

Statewide, 60% of the county jail population is awaiting a trial or a verdict. Eleven counties in Texas have a jail population over 1,000. In all but two of those counties, over 60% of the jail population is awaiting their trial. Texas’ cash bail system is particularly unjust in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic, where the ability to avoid possible infection in county jail relies upon the defendant’s ability to make bail.

2. Pretrial incarceration has grown steadily since 2000

Looking at the pretrial incarceration rate since 2000, it is clear that a high pretrial population is not the norm. In Harris County, the proportion of people incarcerated pretrial has steadily grown from 29% to 77%. 

animated map pretrial jail populations texas
Pretrial incarceration rate has increased steadily across the state over the last 20 years

In March 2020, in response to the emerging pandemic, Harris County released 1,298 pretrial detainees from the jail. This was the largest single month population reduction in the history of the jail. However, it only represents 19% of the pretrial detainees. 5,520 people awaiting trial remained in jail. The jail population has been growing since then, and is currently at pre-pandemic levels again.

pretrial jail population dashboard numbers in major texas counties
This chart shows the clear rise in the pretrial jail population in Harris County over the last 20 years

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and County Judge Lina Hidalgo both support the compassionate release of prisoners to limit the spread of COVID-19, but there are limits to what they can do alone. Gonzalez can release people held on misdemeanor charges, but needs a judge’s approval for felony charges. Hidalgo can issue county executive orders, but these can be slowed down or overturned by the Texas Attorney General.

3. Inmates in Texas jails are at greater risk for COVID-19

At least 231 prisoners and guards in Texas jails and prisons have died of COVID-19. Shockingly, over 80% of those deaths were pretrial detainees presumed innocent by the courts. 

One in ten people in Harris County jail had COVID-19 in September 2020. The design of jails makes COVID-19 outbreaks almost inevitable. There are about 1,000 new inmate bookings each month in Harris County jail, and this cycle allows COVID-19 to enter easily. When it does, outbreaks can happen quickly because people live in close quarters. In response to outbreaks, Harris County jail quarantines people with COVID-19. This protective measure curbs the outbreak, but does not reduce the likelihood of future outbreaks. Reducing the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks in jails requires reducing the density and turnover of the jail population. To do this, the ACLU recommends releasing eligible people from jail, issuing citations in lieu of jail bookings, and rejecting jail bookings for people highly vulnerable to COVID-19.

covid-19 outbreaks in texas county jails

4. Public data could be improved

To properly contextualize the problem of pretrial incarceration rates, we need good data. The Texas Commission on Jail Standards (TCJS) publicly reports county jail population data, but not in a very usable format. Each month of data is in a separate pdf file, so examining trends over time requires you to find, download, and search many files. Our tool coalesces over 20 years of data from 250 files into simple graphics, making it more accessible and actionable. Only by analyzing jail populations over time and across the state can we follow the problem and figure out the right policy solutions.

Shannon Carter

Shannon is a data scientist at January Advisors. You can follow her on Twitter @shan_k_carter