That would be a fitting and just outcome if it does.
Harris County and the state should reform an unfair bond system that punishes the poor more harshly, according to civil rights leaders, legislative officials and criminal experts who gathered Wednesday in front of the county’s criminal justice center. Reform, they argued, could prevent another tragedy like that involving Sandra Bland, who was found dead in her Waller County jail cell in July after failing to make bail.
“The death of Sandra Bland was a travesty of justice,” said Johnny Mata of the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice. “Sandra Bland would probably be alive today if Texas would’ve had a system that is fair.”
Advocates familiar with the bail process and statutes like the Fair Defense Act said it never should have come to that.
“There’s still an investigation being done,” Mata said of Bland’s death, which an autopsy shows was a suicide by hanging. “We respect that. However, we feel that an injustice has been committed.”
His coalition reflects more than 25 organizations across the area. He was joined Wednesday by experts like law professor Sandra Guerra Thomspon, director of the University of Houston Law Center’s Criminal Justice Institute, who said the need for bail reform is a national concern but is especially needed in Houston.
By following pre-determined bail schedules, magistrates ignore their responsibility to take individual factors into consideration to ensure that the bond does not merely become a punishment for being poor, she and others argued. Instead it’s meant to reflect an individual’s flight risk and potential public safety concerns. Had a more nuanced risk assessment instrument been used in Bland’s case, she argued, “the question would not be, ‘Does she have $500?’ but, ‘Is she a risk to come to court?'”
In Texas, defendants are supposed to have the added protection of the Fair Defense Act passed in 2001. The act, authored by [Sen. Rodney] Ellis, addresses issues like indigent defense and the timely appointment of counsel. But it also contains language about when a defendant should be granted representation. According to some, that right extends to the bond hearing itself, though this is rarely ever the case. Hargrave said in her more than 20 years of working in Waller County, an individual never had a defense lawyer present during the bond hearing.
Advocates also question what they see as the low rate of personal bonds granted to individuals. If an individual is granted a personal bond, he or she is released on the promise to appear in court. Only 7 percent of bonds issued in Harris County are personal bonds, according to Randall Kallinen, a lawyer and the former head of the Houston chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
With so few personal bonds issued, said Kallinen, “the person who has the money gets out.” In other words, “the Harris County jail is housing poor people,” he said.
I’ve written about this topic a number of times, usually in the context of jail overcrowding, but Sandra Bland’s death is a tragic reminder of another aspect of people not being able to post bail: A significant number of people die in jail every year. Grits puts a number to it: “183 have died in Sheriffs’ custody since January 2014, including 80 so far in 2015, a statistic which includes Sandra Bland and appears on pace to exceed last year’s number.” There are many different reasons why these deaths happen, and unfortunately the data we have doesn’t go into much detail about them, but the point is that some number of those people shouldn’t have been in jail at all, and wouldn’t have been there if they could have posted bail. This is not acceptable.
On a related note, the Texas Senate has convened a committee to study jail safety standards, which was another issue in Sandra Bland’s death. This is commendable, and I hope it produces some action items for the next Legislature, but 1) any such legislation is two years away from being enacted; 2) there’s no guarantee anything ever gets passed, and; 3) fixing how bail is set is something that can be done right now. Kudos to the Senate for addressing this, but let’s not lose sight of what’s right in front of us. More from Grits here.