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Judge officially approves final Harris County bail settlement

It’s officially finally final and official.

A federal judge has signed off on a historic bail reform agreement for Harris County, setting in place new protections for people accused of minor offenses in the country’s third largest criminal justice system.

The sweeping agreement and consent decree, officially approved Thursday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, seeks to level the playing field for the thousands of people arrested each year on misdemeanor charges. For years, judges jailed poor people by default while they awaited trial, while those with money to cover bail could walk free and return to their families and livelihoods.

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Rosenthal wrote that her ruling was rooted in extensive legal findings over the past three years.

“No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are released on personal bonds — rich or poor — will appear for hearings or trial, or that they will commit no crimes on release,” Rosenthal said in a 55-page opinion. “No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are detained pending trial — rich or poor — should have been detained. But Harris County … can stop systematically depriving indigent misdemeanor defendants of their constitutionally-protected rights by detaining them simply because they cannot afford to post money bail.”

Her opinion acknowledged the objections brought up by “amici,” or friends of the court, including the state Attorney General’s Office, District Attorney Kim Ogg and County Commissioner Steve Radack, who voiced concerns at the final hearing that the deal limited judicial discretion and did not do enough to ensure the safety of communities.

“The court does not question the amici and objectors’ good faith,” she wrote. “The public safety and public resource concerns they raise are important.

“The proposed consent decree and settlement agreement are approved because these concerns are fully recognized and addressed,” the opinion said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement following the judge’s decision, saying it “puts to rest the arguments used to instill fear regarding the impact of bail reform.”

“We do not have to choose between protecting the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting public safety,” she said. “In fact, by reforming our broken bail system, we are taking a step toward rebuilding trust between our system of justice and the residents it serves.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said: “After decades of harmful injustice and three years of a legal battle waged in defense of our core principles of liberty, equal treatment and due process for all — no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin — Harris County’s oppressive and discriminatory misdemeanor cash bail practices are ending.”

You know the story by now. At this point, we need to focus on making this work as it is supposed to, to ensuring that we are making adjustments to the risk assessment tool as needed, and just generally measuring everything so a year from now we can present some metrics to show how it all has gone. There are still political fights to be had – just ask the people running against Vince Ryan and Kim Ogg, for starters, and the Lege still needs to address bail reform in a meaningful way – and there are still legal fights to be had – the second bail lawsuit, which is about felony defendants, and the Dallas County bail lawsuit, among others – but this was a huge step forward. A copy of the consent decree is here, and a copy of the settlement agreement is here. Kudos to everyone who helped make this happen.

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