PUBLISHED:March 05, 2020

Garrett appointed independent monitor of landmark Texas settlement, possible model for bail reform


Garrett will monitor implementation of bail reform in the nation's third-largest county in a seven-year project involving research teams at Duke, Texas A&M University, and the University of Houston Law Center.

Duke Law professor Brandon Garrett has been appointed independent monitor for a landmark bail reform settlement in Texas that could become a national model for cash bail reform.

Garrett, the L. Neil Williams, Jr. Professor of Law and faculty director of the Duke Center for Science and Justice, will monitor implementation of the ODonnell Consent Decree in Harris County, Texas, which encompasses Houston and, with nearly 5 million people, is the nation’s third most populous county. Chief Judge Lee Rosenthal of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas, signed the motion to appoint on March 3.

Working closely with deputy monitor Sandra Guerra Thompson, professor of law and director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, and with Dr. Dottie Carmichael of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, Garrett will direct a seven-year monitoring project that includes ongoing analysis of Harris County data and intensive engagement with stakeholders in Texas.

“We could not be more honored to have this opportunity to serve as monitor for this landmark constitutional settlement, and we look forward to helping the parties and the court institute lasting reform of the County’s misdemeanor pretrial system,” Garrett said.

The ODonnell Consent Decree settles three years of litigation in ODonnell v. Harris Cty., a class action lawsuit brought in federal court after the titular plaintiff was arrested for driving on a suspended license and jailed when she could not afford bail set at $2,500. In the complaint, the plaintiffs alleged that the county’s bail practices contributed to an average of 500 people per night being detained in the Harris County Jail for misdemeanors.

In January 2019, after an initial preliminary injunction order, which took effect June 6, 2017, and following an appeal, Harris County, the misdemeanor judges, and the sheriff promulgated new bail rules, requiring the prompt post-arrest release on unsecured bonds of the vast majority of people arrested for misdemeanor offenses. Pursuant to the rules, everyone else is afforded a bail hearing with counsel, and most are then also ordered released. These rules provided the foundation for the global Consent Decree, which the parties agreed to in July 2019 and which Chief Judge Rosenthal approved on November 21, 2019.

Garrett’s proposal was selected from four finalists in a competitive bid process and was approved by the plaintiffs, judges, county, and sheriff as the proposal “most likely to lead to successful and timely implementation of the Consent Decree and, ultimately, a self-sustaining, self-monitoring system that promotes liberty, court appearance, and community safety.”

The monitorship will be guided by nine principles derived from the consent decree: transparency; accountability; permanency; the protection of constitutional rights; racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic fairness; public safety and effective law enforcement; maximizing liberty; cost and process efficiency; and demonstrated effectiveness.

A leading scholar of criminal justice outcomes, evidence, and constitutional rights, Garrett will focus on research and policy aspects of the decree, overseeing teams at Duke’s Center for Science and Justice, and the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University. Additionally, Philip J. Cook, the ITT/Terry Sanford Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the Sanford School of Public Policy, whose current research focuses on the economics of crime, will advise Garrett on cost analysis.

Said Garrett: “Sandy Thompson and I are so fortunate to be collaborating with a diverse team of collaborators at Duke and at Texas A&M, which will include experts in analysis of pretrial data, qualitative and quantitative methods, the economics of crime, indigent defense best practices, wrongful convictions, and behavioral health.”

Thompson, who has built her career studying criminal justice reform issues in Texas, will oversee outreach and engagement efforts including a Community Working Group consisting of individuals representing diverse constituencies affected by the bail system, including retired law enforcement officials, people who provide services to indigent individuals released pretrial, representatives of the business community, and local organizers and activists.

“In the short run, the consent decree will ensure that people who are arrested for non-violent, low-level offenses will not suffer the trauma and upheaval of being in jail solely because they are too poor to pay a cash bail,” Thompson said. “This change in policy protects public safety, saves taxpayer dollars, and protects the constitutional rights of individuals.”

She added, “In the long run, we look forward to working with a diverse group of stakeholders to help make Harris County’s pretrial justice system a model for the nation.” Garrett and Thompson have previously collaborated on projects relating to eyewitness and forensic evidence.