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Fifth Circuit reinstates bail order


Harris County took the fight over its controversial bail system to the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday, even as county officials scrambled to plan the imminent release of dozens of misdemeanor defendants held behind bars who cannot afford to post cash bail.

A federal appeals court ruling earlier Tuesday had greenlighted the release of hundreds of poor inmates held in the Harris County Jail on misdemeanor charges ahead of their trials, and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez prepared for the release of as many as 177 people starting Wednesday morning.

But in an emergency filing late Tuesday with the nation’s highest court, Harris County asked for another halt to the ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal.

The county’s request went to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who handles appeals requests from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Thomas can either rule on the matter himself or take it to the full court, according to the county attorney’s office.

“In the absence of a stay, the district court’s order that Harris County — the third-largest jurisdiction in the nation — immediately release without sufficient surety untold numbers of potentially dangerous arrestees is certain to cause irreparable harm,” the county’s appeal states.


The appeal to the Supreme Court came at the end of a whirlwind day for the county in a closely watched case targeting a bail system in which poor people accused of low-level misdemeanors frequently are kept in jail because they can’t afford to post cash bail while awaiting trial.

On Tuesday morning, a three-judge panel from the 5th Circuit Court determined that Rosenthal’s ruling would remain in effect until the case goes to trial. The ruling set in motion the release of up to 177 misdemeanor detainees, who do not have money to pay cash bail and who do not have other restrictions such as mental health evaluations or federal detainers.

The inmates affected by the ruling account for about 2 percent of the total jail population of 8,800, sheriff’s officials said.

The county will comply with Rosenthal’s order until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in.

“We know we all have to follow the order of a federal district court,” said Robert Soard, the first assistant county attorney. “We’re working with both the sheriff and pretrial services, and we’re going to try to accomplish that as seamlessly as we can.”

The sheriff’s office expected to begin releasing qualified inmates early Wednesday.

“It doesn’t mean that 177 people will walk out,” said Jason Spencer, spokesman for the sheriff. “That would be the absolute highest number. In all likelihood it will be less than that.”

See here for the background. I’m a little short on time, but you know where I stand on this. I’m rooting for Justice Thomas to decline to take up the county’s appeal, and I look forward to the county having to comply with the order. Maybe then we can finally bring this matter to a close. A statement from the Texas Organizing Project is beneath the fold.

The following is a statement by Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of the Texas Organizing Project, on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision against Harris County in its bid to stay the preliminary injunction of the district court pending appeal:

“We are grateful for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals allowing Judge Rosenthal’s ruling to go into effect, giving poor people accused of misdemeanor offenses the opportunity to regain their freedom without posting cash bond.

“We again urge Harris County to accept the judges’ decision, and stop fighting what is inevitable, just and right. We can no longer rob people of their freedom when they haven’t been found guilty of the crime of which they are accused, and keep them in jail away from their jobs and family simply because they are too poor to post bond.

“Justice shouldn’t be only for those who can afford it.

“Our Harris County Jail should be used for only one purpose: to hold people who are paying their debt to society. That’s it.

“But because we live in a broken world, the jail serves as a catch all for everything we don’t want to deal with: people with mental health needs, people with drug addictions, homeless people. People who should be getting help recovering and becoming well are instead just swept up here. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Hopefully, a rigorous application of the laws that protect our freedoms will force our city and county to finally deal comprehensively and humanely with our most vulnerable residents. Hopefully, without jail to hide our residents with needs, we will finally be forced to find humane solutions.

“At TOP, we will fight for these humane solutions. Jail is not the answer. It never was.

“We can do better. We must do better.”

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