Texas justice system needs reform to save taxpayer dollars, decrease jail overcrowding, says Baker Institute expert


Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

HOUSTON – (Nov. 10, 2020) – The Texas justice system’s overreaction to low-level offenses wastes taxpayer dollars and contributes to overcrowded jails that put community health at risk, according to an expert at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University
Credit: 123RF.com/Rice University

Katharine Neill Harris, the Alfred C. Glassell III Fellow in Drug Policy at the Baker Institute, outlined her insights in a Nov. 5 response to the Texas House of Representatives Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence's formal request for information on the topic. She is available to discuss the issue with the news media.

"The state’s punitive response to law violations that have little to no impact on public safety is a disservice to the public’s interest in a fair and equitable justice system," Neill Harris wrote.

There are several reasons Texas locks up so many citizens, Neill Harris said, one of which is its pursuit of drug cases. New felony drug possession cases have increased 27% over the last five years to a record 62,463 in FY 2019, according to her statement to the committee. Drug possession offenses accounted for 33% of new felony cases filed in 2019, the single largest felony offense category.

A 2017 analysis by Texas Appleseed that looked at 12 of the state’s 25 most populous counties found that possession of a controlled substance was the third most common charge leading to a jail booking, after driving while intoxicated and possession of marijuana. A separate analysis focused on Harris County (which was not included in the Texas Appleseed study) found that between 2015 and 2018, possession of less than one gram of a controlled substance was the most common lead charge in jail bookings and accounted for more total nights in jail than any other offense, Neill Harris said.

"Limiting arrests and penalties for fine-only offenses and restricting the use of jail time for failure to pay fines and fees will reduce law enforcement costs, improve justice system functioning and help address the problem of 'debtor’s prisons,'" Neill Harris wrote. "Expanding cite-and-release eligibility to include nonviolent misdemeanors and low-level drug possession and prostitution charges will provide localities with an opportunity to reduce the fiscal, public health and racially disparate burdens of incarceration, all without compromising public safety."

The social distancing necessary to contain the COVID-19 pandemic amplifies the necessity of reducing the jail population, Neill Harris said.

"The recent protests against police violence and in support of racial equality in Texas and across the U.S. make clear the need to restore public faith in the justice system through substantive reform," she wrote.

To schedule an interview with Harris or for more information, contact Jeff Falk, director of national media relations at Rice, at jfalk@rice.edu or 713-348-6775.


Founded in 1993, Rice University’s Baker Institute ranks as the No. 2 university-affiliated think tank in the world and the No. 1 energy think tank in the world. As a premier nonpartisan think tank, the institute conducts research on domestic and foreign policy issues with the goal of bridging the gap between the theory and practice of public policy. The institute’s strong track record of achievement reflects the work of its endowed fellows, Rice University faculty scholars and staff, coupled with its outreach to the Rice student body through fellow-taught classes — including a public policy course — and student leadership and internship programs. Learn more about the institute at www.bakerinstitute.org or on the institute’s blog, http://blog.bakerinstitute.org.