The size of someone's bank account shouldn't determine whether they live or die in jail during the ongoing pandemic.

But today, tens of thousands of Texans – disproportionately people of color and low income people – sit in jail as they await trial because of money bail. People with enough resources can buy their freedom and await trial in their homes and communities, while people without enough resources remain stuck in jail. In addition to facing the possibility of losing their housing and their jobs, people locked up because of unaffordable bail now face an increased risk of dying from COVID-19.

Not only is money bail unfair and dangerous, it’s also expensive: Jailing people who have not been convicted of crimes costs Texas taxpayers an estimated $905 million each year.

We need meaningful bail reform now more than ever to protect all people who interact with the criminal legal system and to reduce the enormous burden that pretrial incarceration puts on our communities.

That’s why today, the ACLU of Texas is launching a free, new, interactive online tool developed in collaboration with Houston-based data science and technology firm, January Advisors. The Texas Jails Data Dashboard tracks COVID-19 cases in Texas jails, visualizes the enormous financial costs associated with pretrial incarceration, and allows people to see how Texas county jail populations have changed, both during the COVID-19 health crisis and before.

The free online tool culls information from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, allowing policymakers and journalists to see how incarceration rates and COVID-19 cases in jails have changed since January. It allows visualizations of jail population data going back to 1998, provides comparisons in pretrial incarceration rates between counties using the latest available data, and helps policymakers, journalists, and the public understand the cost to local taxpayers of high rates of pretrial incarceration.

The tool is a straightforward rendering of a complicated layer of our criminal justice system, the motivation for which is guiding policy change. 

Data from the dashboard shows that jail populations in many Texas counties dropped in April in response to the COVID-19 epidemic, but that in many cases, jail populations are on the rise again. Sadly, there are thousands of reported COVID-19 infections among guards and incarcerated people, the data shows. Finally, the dashboard shows that a majority of individuals detained in Texas jails are held pre-trial, and in most cases, these people are presumed innocent but are only kept in jail because of their inability to afford cash bail.

Using the dashboard’s “Policy Simulator” feature, users can see the impact of mass incarceration in Texas jails on taxpayers. For example, a 25 percent reduction in jail populations statewide would save Texas taxpayers more than  $198 million annually.

Fixing our unjust money bail system in Texas begins with helping everyone understand the scale of the problem. With this new tool, we aim to make publicly-available data about Texas Jails accessible and actionable - moving advocates, organizers, journalists, and policy makers towards smart justice.

Explore the Dashboard for yourself to find out how our existing system is costing taxpayers millions and endangering lives, then take action to fix Texas’s broken bail system.