Criminal Justice in Houston

Rates of criminal charges and incarcerated populations are shrinking, but still remain high relative to the nation

While criminal charges and incarcerated populations are falling, the three-county area still faces troubling disparities. 

Why criminal justice matters to Houston

Houston’s criminal justice system is necessary for protecting residents, promoting safety, and providing fair trials and rehabilitation. However, law enforcement practices have received growing attention from the public, as statistics show that residents of color — particularly Black residents — are charged with certain offenses at much higher rates than White residents. Research shows that mass incarceration has both social and economic consequences, which exacerbates inequality and poverty issues, preventing millions from achieving social mobility, limiting job opportunities, and making it harder to reintegrate into society.1 These disparities in enforcement can create distrust and erode public attitudes toward law enforcement, further complicating our criminal justice system.

By staying informed, Houstonians can work together to ensure our criminal justice system works optimally for all residents, resulting in safer, more equitable and more trusting communities.

The data

Juvenile probation referrals

The juvenile detention system is a dedicated justice system focused on the rehabilitation of the youth population from 10–17 years of age. In lieu of being charged for a crime like adults, juveniles are “referred” to the court, which can then decide whether or not to place the minor on probation, pursue incarceration by charging the minor as an adult, or some other repercussion. 

Juvenile referrals

In 2018, the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department received 11,076 referrals that involved 6,683 youth, much more than the other two major counties. 

“In 2018, juvenile felony referrals comprised about 19% of the total referrals in Harris County, the largest increase in 27 years.3

Overall, the rate of referrals for delinquent conduct and juvenile felonies have been decreasing in the three-county area. Both Fort Bend and Harris counties reported steady decreases in both delinquent conduct and felony referrals between 2010 and 2017, with only Montgomery County seeing an increase in both rates between 2014 and 2017. 

Broken down by race, Harris County has the highest rate of juvenile referrals for Black youth, followed by Montgomery County, and Fort Bend County. 

“Across all three counties, Black youth are referred at more than two-to-three times the rate of White youth.”

Adult criminal charges in Harris County

A criminal charge is a formal accusation by a public prosecutor or member of law enforcement alleging that somebody has committed a crime. A charge is what starts a criminal case in court. Someone who has only been charged with a crime may be eligible for bail depending on the severity of the accusation and the individual’s criminal background.

In Harris County, between 2010 and 2018, the number of criminal charges filed fell by 47% (down 63,039 cases). In 2018, there were 70,148 criminal charges filed with the court compared to 133,187 in 2010.

Below we provide insight into four main categories of criminal activity: personal, property, statutory and financial, and other crimes.

Personal crimes

Personal crimes are crimes that cause physical or mental harm to other persons and are typically considered violent crimes. Some personal crimes include assault and battery, sexual assault and battery, and murder. 

Assault (non-sexual) is defined by the Texas Penal Code as any bodily injury or threat of physical harm made deliberately to another person. It includes nonsexual crimes of violence with and without a weapon. The most common assault charges include assault of a family member, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon.

In 2018, there were 11,764 assault charges filed in Harris County, compared to 19,769 charges in 2010, a 40% drop. The racial distribution of assault criminal charges shows that there were more White residents charged for non-sexual assault than Black residents. However, Black males have a much higher rate of assault charges per 100,000 population, followed by White males, Black females and White females.

Sexual assault refers to any form of non-consensual sexual contact.

In 2018, there were a total of 39 sexual assault charges in Harris County, a significant decrease from 228 charges in 2010, according to the county’s criminal court data. In 2018, more than 60% of the defendants for sexual assault charges were White. 

83% decrease in sexual assault charges

Harris County experienced a significant decrease between 2010 and 2018.

Homicide broadly refers to any criminal activity that results in the loss of a life, including involuntary manslaughter, murder, capital murder and intoxicated manslaughter with a vehicle. 

In 2018, there were 74 homicide charges in Harris County, compared to 438 charges in 2010. Data also shows that from 2010 to 2018 Black females became more likely to be charged for homicide than White females; while there was not much change in the racial makeup of male defendants. 

Overall, Blacks have a higher rate of homicide charges per 100,000 population than Whites, regardless of the sex of defendants. Regardless of race, men are significantly more likely to be charged with homicide than women. 

Property crimes

Property crimes include things like theft and burglary, or any other action that damages someone else’s property. Property crimes account for a large percentage of crimes committed annually by the adult population. 

Burglary refers to the unlawful entry of a building, residence and/or vehicle with the intent to commit another crime in the process.

In 2018, there were 1,293 burglary charges filed in Harris County, a significant drop from 4,381 in 2010. Meanwhile, the average age of defendants for burglary charges increased from 25 to 29 years old. 

The racial distribution of defendants for burglary charges indicates a big change in the past eight years. In 2010, 62% of the defendants were White; while in 2018, only 44% were White. This change is mainly concentrated amongst male defendants.

Typically speaking, men are more likely to be charged with burglary by a very wide margin. Interestingly, the rate at which Black men are more likely than White men to be charged with burglary is significantly higher than between Black and White women, who are charged with burglary at an almost even rate.

Theft, on the other hand, refers solely to taking private property without the consent of the owner. Theft is often a part of burglary.

In 2018, there were 4,250 theft charges filed with the Harris County courts, compared to 20,407 in 2010. Again, Black males have a much higher rate of theft charges per 100,000 population than Black females, followed by White males and White females.

Statutory crimes

Defined broadly, statutory crime refers to actions that become criminal through legally defined boundaries created by legislatures, typically to promote safety. For instance, it is not inherently illegal to drink alcohol, but it is illegal to drink if you are under 21 or if you are drinking while operating a motor vehicle. As such statutory crimes include alcohol-related crimes, drug crimes, traffic offenses and others.

Alcohol-related charges are very common, with the majority of charges being for first, second or third offense DWI (Driving While Intoxicated).

Rates of DWI charges in Harris County have dropped much less significantly than other criminal charges; in 2018, 13,130 alcohol-driving charges were filed in Harris County, compared to 16,710 charges in 2010. 

The average age of defendants for alcohol-driving charges remains the same at 34 in the past eight years. The majority of defendants for alcohol-driving charges were White and/or male. White males are charged with alcohol-driving charges at more than twice the rate of Black males, meanwhile the gap between Black and White women is similar but at much smaller rates. 

Marijuana charges include possession, manufacture, or delivery of marijuana. The majority of charges are for possession of 0–2 ounces of marijuana, despite changes in enforcement policies.  

In Harris County, a total of 3,159 controlled substances-marijuana charges were filed in 2018, a significant drop from 13,151 charges in 2010. 

“The vast majority of defendants for marijuana charges were males (90%), with an average age of 25 — significantly younger than the average age for most other crimes which is between 30-34 years of age.”

Traffic offenses include driving while license is suspended, reckless driving, expired inspections, or unauthorized use of a vehicle. 

In 2018, there were 3,841 traffic offense charges in Harris County, reduced by more than half from 7,926 in 2010.

In 2018, 82% of defendants for traffic offense charges were male. The rate of traffic offense charges is the highest for Black males, followed by White males, Black females and White females.  

Financial crime

Financial crimes consist of crimes involving deception or fraud for monetary gain, including fraud or forgery, cybercrimes, money laundering, and others. The most common crimes are for credit card fraud, forgery of a document, credit or debit card abuse and forging a government instrument.

In 2018, there were 857 fraud, forgery, or impersonation charges in Harris County, down from 3,597 charges in 2010.

In 2018, 54% of financial crime defendants were White and almost 70% of the defendants were men. However, Black men are significantly more likely to be charged for fraud, forgery or impersonation charges than White men. 

Organized crime

Organized crime activities include criminal activity such as money laundering or gang membership run through a centralized enterprise conspiring to break the law. 

In 2018, there were 125 organized crime charges in Harris County, a decline of almost half from 234 charges in 2010. However, the average age of organized crime defendants dropped sharply from 31 to 25 years old, an alarming trend worth noting. 

In 2010, 37% of defendants facing organized crime charges were Black and 58% were White. In 2018, the share of Black defendants rose sharply to 80%, while the percentage of White defendants dropped to just 18.7%. This trend is consistent with females, as the rate of White women charged with organized crime offenses has dropped by 15% from 2010 to 2018, while the rate of Black women charged has risen by 20% in that same time period.

85% decrease in organized crime charges for White defendants

Between 2010 and 2018, the number of organized crime charges filed against White defendants declined significantly, while Black defendants saw no change.

The incarcerated population

The incarcerated population refers to anyone residing/participating in jail, prison, a halfway house, court-ordered boot camp or a work-release program. 

Jail inmates are those who are in jail awaiting trial for a crime they have not yet been convicted of, or those whose crimes were not serious enough to earn them a trip to a state or federal prison. 

The number of jail inmates across the nation, state and the three-county area remained fairly steady between 2005 and 2015, with only Montgomery County seeing a steady increase in its jail population, growing from 795 in 2005 to 1,035 in 2015, a 23% increase over 10 years. Meanwhile, Harris County’s incarcerated population has remained at about 9,000 over the same time period. 

Prisoners are those who have been convicted of a crime (typically a felony) and are now living in a state or federal prison. 

While prisoner counts have remained fairly steady at the national and state levels, the three-county area saw an overall reduction in prisoners, dropping from 33,416 in 2005 to 28,909 in 2015, accounting for 17% of the country’s overall prison population. While Harris County accounted for most of the decrease, Montgomery County was the only county to see an increase in its prison population.

The incarceration rate

The incarceration rate measures the rate of people in federal/state prisons and/or local jails per 100,000 residents. Texas is among the states with the highest jail and prison incarceration rates in the nation. In the past two decades, the rate has been slightly decreasing over time with Texas being on par with the national average in 2015. 

Among the three counties, Montgomery and Harris counties have higher jail incarceration rates than Fort Bend County although all three remained below state averages as of 2014.

The prison incarceration rate in Texas reached an all-time high between 1999 and 2000 and then declined over time. In 2015, the prison incarceration rate in Texas was 916 prisoners per 100,000 residents aged 15–64, higher than the national prison incarceration rate of 723. 

Among the three counties, Harris County has a much higher prison incarceration rates than Montgomery and Fort Bend counties, with a history of exceeding state rates until 2010. However, the incarceration rate has been declining faster than the state average since 2005. Meanwhile, the prison incarceration rate is decreasing in Fort Bend County as well. On the contrary, the prison incarceration rate in Montgomery County is on the rise.

26.7% higher incarceration rates

In 2015, 916 of every 100,000 Texans were incarcerated compared to 723 nationwide.

Since 1990, we see jail incarceration rates are persistently highest amongst the Black population across all three counties, with the exception that the rate for the Hispanic population exceeding that of Blacks in Fort Bend County between 1997 and 2002.  

Female incarceration

The U.S. has the highest female prison population rates anywhere in the world, and Texas is one of the top 10 contributors to the female prison population.2 In 2015, there were nearly 2,000 women in prison and more than 1,200 in jail in the three-county area. Many of these women are mothers isolated from children because of visitation limitations, costly phone fees and long distances between their children’s homes and the prison/jail. However, signs of progress are beginning to emerge.

Although rates are still high, the female jail population has decreased around the nation, the state and in Fort Bend and Harris counties between 2005 and 2015. Harris County saw the biggest decrease, going from 107 women in jail per 100,000 female residents in 2005 to just 63 in 2015. On the other hand, the rate of women in jail in Montgomery County increased in that same time period, growing from 80 per 100,000 female residents to 96 in 2015. 

Female prison incarceration rates followed similar trends as jail incarceration rates. Mirroring the state and the nation, Harris County’s female prison population has steadily decreased from 2005 to 2015, dropping by 43% during the period. Fort Bend County followed suit, cutting it’s female prison population nearly in half. On the other hand, Montgomery County’s female prison population nearly doubled from 65 in 2005 to 127 per 100,000 female residents in 2015.



  1.  Brennan Center for Justice, “ Ending Mass Incarceration: Ideas from Today’s Leaders”(NYU Law, 2019)
  2.  The Sentencing Project, “Fact Sheet: Incarcerated Women and Girls” (June 2019)