Harris County passes package of 11 criminal justice reform proposals

Harris County leaders passed a package of 11 criminal justice reform measures, just hours after attending George Floyd’s funeral. The cornerstone was a proposal to provide stricter civilian oversight of police.

The item ordered the Justice Administration Department to study creating a civilian oversight board to review allegations of the use of force by police.

“The analysis shall consider elements such as subpoena power, independence from law enforcement, authority to discipline, necessary resources and access to specially trained non-law enforcement investigators,” said Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the measure.

The item passed 4-1, with only Commissioner Steve Radack voting no.

The other items that passed were:

  • Engaging community in budgeting for evaluations for all criminal justice departments funded by Harris County (passed 5-0)
  • Requesting the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and constables precincts submit monthly reports on officer uses of force (passed 5-0)
  • Commission a study on creating a county-level emergency responder program to take over 911 calls for things like mental health and substance abuse crises (passed 5-0)
  • Commission a study on creating a county-level agency to administer violence interruption programs (passed 5-0)
  • Make improvements to the indigent defense system (passed 5-0)
  • Study best practices for alternatives to criminal justice to deal with poverty, homelessness, public health and mental health, substance use and violence prevention, within $25 million (passed 3-2, Radack and Jack Cagle opposed)
  • Commission a report on the effects of criminal fines, fees, and cash bail on vulnerable communities, including low-income, and racial and ethnic minority groups (passed 5-0)
  • Requestina a bi-annual report tracking racial disparities in the criminal justice system, with first report to include evidence-based recommendations for addressing those disparities (passed 5-0)
  • Request for the Justice Administration Department to work with Harris County law enforcement to develop a model use of force policy, including banning choke holds (passed 5-0)

“Reforming law enforcement practices and holding police accountable for these killings are important,” Commissioner Ellis said. “But the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and other victims are not simply due to rogue police violence. The destruction of these lives is a symptom of the much larger and widespread disease of systematic over criminalization, mass incarceration, racism, and oppression in our American system that needlessly and continuously destroys countless Black and Brown lives.”

“An independent board with subpoena power provides the public with assurances that the decisions being made are just. The county will study whether we can establish an independent board that can investigate, has teeth, independent funds and can make recommendations that have weight,” Commissioner Ellis said.

“We are calling for a comprehensive examination of our budget priorities, and what we can do to most effectively use the people’s resources to uplift our communities and make them safer while eliminating and divesting from structures that criminalize people based on their class, race or health,” Commissioner Ellis said. “By redistributing funds toward community resources, we can begin to build a better quality of life for communities of color and find better solutions than a punitive criminal justice system.”

“Putting people in jail doesn’t make us safer,” Commissioner said. “Research shows there is no link between higher incarceration and reduction in violent crime. When Texas reduced its incarceration rate, the crime rate also went down. When we lock people up, we hurt people of color the most. Black people make up 12% of our state population but 33% of our prison inmates.”

While most measures passed unanimously, there was one more notable exception: a resolution in memory of George Floyd.

That also passed 4-1, with Radack dissenting over language citing “racist policing and a broken law enforcement system” as causing Floyd’s death.