Poll: Harris County Voters Support Cash Bail Reform

Dawn Milam & Sean McElwee

New polling from Data for Progress and The Lab, a policy vertical of The Appeal, shows that a majority (51 percent) of likely voters in Harris County, Texas support reforms that have eliminated cash bail for many low-level offenses. The poll follows a new report confirming that reducing the use of cash bail has worked as intended—saving the county money, allowing more people to remain with their families instead of being in jail, and reducing racial disparities in pretrial detention, all without leading to a rise in reoffense rates.

Polling & Findings

Harris County ended the practice of requiring cash bail for many low-level criminal offenses. Cash bail is the practice of requiring people accused of violating the law to put up a cash bond in order to be released from jail while they await trial. People who cannot afford to put up this bond are held in jail. Ending cash bail does not mean releasing everyone accused of a crime before trial. Instead, ending this practice means that whether someone is released before trial is based on their potential danger to the community, not based on their ability to afford to be released. 

Supporters of this practice point to a Harris County study that shows ending cash bail for many low-level offenses saved the county money, reduced the number of people in jail, and did not lead to an increase in arrests among those awaiting trial. Opponents of this practice argue that ending cash bail has left many potential dangerous people accused of crimes on the street to commit more crimes while they wait for trial.

Harris County’s new pretrial release policies were the result of a federal civil rights lawsuit and a court ruling that the county’s reliance on cash bail was unconstitutionally discriminatory against indigent individuals. Jailing people merely because they could not afford to post bail and buy their way out, the court ruled, caused irreparable harm to tens of thousands of people every year, and violated the Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. Federal courts have similarly ordered multiple Texas counties to change their bail practices, and another pending lawsuit challenges the use of cash bail in felony cases. 

The independent court monitors overseeing the implementation of revised pretrial practices have found a number of positive results, indicating in a March report that the reforms are working as intended. Their report found that reoffense rates had not increased, and that racial disparities in pretrial release had been reduced. 

We tested these and other benefits of pretrial reform, finding that voters view them as convincing reasons to maintain the new pretrial policies. Specifically:

  • 60 percent of respondents found it convincing that, following the county’s bail reforms, the percentage of individuals arrested for new crimes within a year of their original arrest had decreased. 
  • 54 percent found it convincing that racial disparities among people held in jail had decreased. 
  • 74 percent found it convincing that people who are presumed innocent now have their freedom before trial, and can continue to work, support their families, and be a part of their community.
  • 68 percent found it convincing that accused people who pose no public safety risk won’t be jailed solely because they cannot afford their bond. 

Despite the evidence demonstrating that Harris County’s bail reform efforts have been effective and beneficial, Governor Greg Abbott, and along with other Republican lawmakers and law enforcement officials, have increasingly fought these reforms, most recently by attempting to link pretrial reform with a new, nationwide increase in homicides. But independent court monitors and other experts agree that there is little to suggest a connection between these new cases and the county’s pretrial practices, especially since homicides have spiked in cities across the country, not just in Harris County and other areas that have cut the use of cash bail. A memo to the county commissioners from the Harris County Justice Administration Department noted that the pandemic and national socio-economic effects were more likely contributors and concluded that “other policy initiatives—not renewed reliance on cash bail—will be required to halt the increase in violence.” 

We wanted to test whether these explanations resonated with voters. Our polling shows that voters find these explanations convincing reasons to conclude that pretrial reform is unconnected to the rise in homicides: 

  • 69 percent found it convincing that the county’s reforms took place between 2017 and 2019, while the increase in homicides occurred after the pandemic began in 2020. 
  • 68 percent found it convincing that the rise in homicides has been nationwide, including in many places with no changes to bail practices. 
  • 52 percent found it convincing that the 2020 homicide spike is due to the pandemic, and that Harris County’s homicide rates will return to previous levels once the pandemic is over. 

Polling Methodology

From March 19 to March 26, 2021, Data for Progress conducted a survey of 466 likely voters in 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 ±5 percentage points. 

Poll: Harris County Voters Support Cash Bail Reform