This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.
A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.
The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.
This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.
The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.
“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”
The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.
“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”
Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.
Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”
County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.
“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.
The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”
“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”
Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.