Harris County Voters Support Reducing Jail Population to Combat COVID-19

Rebecca Buckwalter-Poza & Sean McElwee

Houston’s Harris County Jail is nearly out of beds, straining local resources and increasing the risk of spreading COVID-19 throughout the community. Early in the pandemic, the county was able to bring the incarcerated population down to 7,300 people, but now it’s incarcerating more people than ever—almost 8,900. The consequences are steep, and not just for those imprisoned. As of February 5, four detention officials with the Harris County Sheriff’s Office have died of the virus.

New polling from The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, shows substantial support for a number of measures that will dramatically reduce the county jail’s population amid the surging threat posed by COVID-19. For example:

  • A strong majority (59 percent) of respondents in Harris County—including 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans—favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses, such as crimes that do not involve physical injuries to another person. Fewer than a third of voters (31 percent) oppose such a measure. 
  • Sixty-two percent of people, including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing incarcerated people with less than 6 months left in their sentence. 
  • Seven in ten (69 percent) voters, including 59 percent of Republicans, support releasing elderly incarcerated people.
  • 56 percent of voters, including a majority of Republicans (51 percent), favor releasing incarcerated people who are more vulnerable to the virus as a result of conditions like heart and lung disease so long as they do not pose a serious risk to public safety. 
  • More than half (52 percent) of respondents favor releasing children from juvenile detention centers.
  • Voters also want fewer arrests: 65 percent of Harris County voters—and 66 percent of Republicans—support the use of tickets and citations as alternatives to jail to ensure court appearances while only 20 percent of voters overall oppose.

Polling Methodology

From January 29 to February 1, 2021, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 478 likely voters in Harris County, Texas, using web panel respondents. The sample was weighted to be representative of likely voters by age, gender, education, race and voting history. The survey was conducted in English. The margin of error is ±4.5 percentage points.

Harris County Voters Support Reducing Jail Population to Combat COVID-19