Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

jail overcrowding

A long story about the bail industry

It’s complicated.

Judges set bail, but it’s the bondsmen who decide how much a defendant pays to get out of jail.

The long-held 10 percent standard — with defendants or their loved ones paying a tenth of the bail amount to a private company — is not gospel anymore in Harris County and likely never was. People have been securing their release from jail on lower fees for years, according to county data and bail agents.

Bondsmen recently have been accepting lower-percentage fees on an increasing number of violent felonies. The discount makes it clear that judges are not always determining what people have to pay to get out of jail, and the implications for defendants, victims and the system are far-reaching.

“That means the cash bond system itself is serving a danger to the community,” state District Judge Chris Morton said. “Any time there’s a for-profit aspect to criminal justice, that creates the opportunity for oppression and inconsistencies in justice.”

Bail is the money a defendant must pay in order to get out of jail. A bond is posted on a defendant’s behalf, usually by a bail bond company, to secure his or her release. Such a surety bond is like a security deposit.

Bail is not intended as a punishment. It is rather a way of securing a defendant’s agreement to abide by certain conditions and return to court. The standard for bail in most jurisdictions — and other states — is that a bail agent requires 10 percent of the bail amount plus collateral to secure a defendant’s freedom. In Harris County, bail companies rarely pay in full and give the court an equivalent of a provisional IOU with the backing of insurance agencies, said County Court at Law No. 8 Judge Franklin Bynum.

If a defendant skips court, prosecutors can move to revoke or forfeit the defendant’s bond. Revocations trigger an arrest warrant and their return to court upon their capture. Forfeitures are a more tedious process that results in the court keeping the bail amount — but only after a judge agrees and prosecutors successfully sue to seize the money.

In Texas, the 10 percent figure is referenced in Texas Insurance Code, which states that payments above that amount could be subject to regulations. No minimum is required.

[…]

Profits diminished for bail companies after Harris County began adopting bail reform in 2017, requiring cash-free releases for most poor misdemeanor defendants. Bail licenses in Harris County have dropped by nearly two dozen since 2017, with about 80 permitted as of September to operate, records show.

One estimate from monitors tracking the implementation of bail reform indicated that bail bond earnings in Harris County went from around $3.5 million in 2015 to slightly over $500,000 in 2019.

The dwindling bail landscape caused agents to adapt or close up shop. Many padded their business with felony cases, some carrying higher bonds and more risk of defendants skipping court. Some bail agents are relying more on payment plans and are not asking for collateral — a house, car or other possession.

The Houston Chronicle reviewed hundreds of court records and found that bail bondsmen for years have been granting less than 10 percent rates on surety bonds. A sampling of data for the first six months of 2021 supported bondsmen, defense attorney and judges’ anecdotes that bail agents are more frequently charging lower fees, sometimes as small as 1 or 2 percent, at times on more violent crimes. Some of the defendants are then put on payment plans for the remainder of the money.

“We’re business people,” said Michael Kubosh, an at-large city councilman and former bondsman. “You collect what you can.”

While seemingly better for defendants, the lower fees are concerning to lawyers and jurists. Several judges worry that they no longer can count on defendants paying 10 percent for their pretrial release; others feel that even at lower rates, bail is still too much for some.

Authorities believe some defendants have committed more crime to pay bail for themselves and others, according to court records.

Jose Luis Perez — on bond for a prior offense — was charged in March with robbing a woman at gunpoint; he told officers he needed cash to pay for the bail, meaning he was likely on a payment plan, prosecutors said. He faced additional charges in federal court, and the state case was later dismissed.

Prosecutors say that the lower payments also minimize the pressure to return to court, because more money down means defendants would feel beholden to family members who put their livelihoods on the line to free them.

Advocates, meanwhile, do not believe any amount of cash bail keeps the public safe, and they feel bail discounts and payment plans show how many defendants — primarily poor people of color — remain on the hook with private enterprises after securing their freedom.

There’s more, so read the rest. As the story notes, only the US and the Philippines have this sort of cash bail system, and that just seems to me like a bad place to be. As you know, I’m a believer in getting rid of cash bail as part of a larger overhaul of the criminal justice system. We’ve taken a small but important step forward in Harris County, but there’s still a lot to do and a lot of resistance to overcome. This story will give you a feel for some of that.

The bail bill and the quorum

Now that there’s a quorum (or a “quorum”, if you prefer) in the State House again, bills other than the voter suppression bill are getting hearings and will be moved forward for votes. Nearly all of them are terrible, and most of them will breeze on through, but some of them may run into some resistance. These bills may actually have trouble passing if there are enough Democrats to vote against them. I say all that as preamble to say that there are reasons why legislators who had previously held firm on breaking quorum may want to reconsider.

A Texas House committee controlled by Republicans held off on advancing their party’s priority bail reform bill after a four-hour hearing Saturday, during which lawmakers from both parties took aim at a provision that would bar most charitable organizations from posting bail for certain defendants.

The news came as a pleasant surprise to opponents who expected the controversial measure to advance after state Rep. Trent Ashby, a Lufkin Republican in charge of the committee, announced at the outset of the hearing that he would call for a vote before adjourning.

Reversing course hours later, Ashby said the committee would probably consider the bill at its Monday hearing on unrelated legislation, citing the need for lawmakers to address issues raised during public testimony Saturday. He did not say how lawmakers might amend the 35-page bill, though a majority of committee members — including two Republicans who voted to advance prior versions — appear to oppose the restrictions on charitable bail organizations.

“What difference does it make where the money comes from?” said state Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth. “If this is a way just to pay the bail bondsmen, let’s just say it.”

While Geren and state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, expressed newfound criticism of that portion of the bill, Saturday’s hearing otherwise closely resembled one held six weeks ago, when the same committee advanced an earlier iteration of the measure on a party-line vote.

Those who support the bill, most of whom are Republicans, continued to argue that the measure would crack down on the growing number of defendants charged with new felonies and misdemeanors while out on bond — a tally that has tripled in Harris County since 2015 — by limiting the opportunity for defendants to be released on no-cost personal bonds and giving judges more information about a defendant’s criminal history when setting bail.

The mostly Democratic opponents of the bill also rehashed their argument that the limits on no- and low-cost bonds would do nothing to curtail violent crime, with some pointing to a Houston Chronicle analysis that found most people accused of murder while out on bond in Harris County had secured their release by paying bail — a circumstance not directly addressed in the bill. They also say the proposed restrictions on personal bonds are overly expansive and would further overcrowd Texas jails, exacerbating an already massive backlog of cases that they say is mostly what’s driving the problem.

See here for the previous update. Let’s be clear about a couple of things. There’s plenty more about this bill that’s bad than just the ban on charitable organizations paying for bail. It would be simple enough for the Republicans to remove that provision (as they did with the “souls to the polls” and “make it easy for a judge to overturn an election” parts of the voter suppression bill), then pat themselves on the back and have it all declared to be fixed and vote it forward. They could also strip that provision from the House version, then have it added back in when it goes to conference committee. Dems have extremely limited power here, but if they are in full attendance that at least reduces the margin of error Republicans have, and allows for the possibility that the bill could just die because there weren’t enough votes for it. That’s a victory that has a chance to be longer-term. There are no guarantees – indeed, I’d call this scenario against the odds – but it could happen. But only if there are enough Democrats present to make that an actual possibility.

I’m not arguing for or against what any individual member should do at this point. There are still legitimate concerns for the remaining holdouts, and there needs to be a lot of work done to repair relationships where possible. All I am saying here is that now that there is a quorum, and other bills are being brought up for hearings and votes, the decision to attend or not at this point is more complex and nuanced than it was before. Please take that into consideration when other members of the Democratic caucus do or do not announce their return.

Bad bail bill 2.0

This was also happening over the weekend.

Days into a short legislative session, Texas lawmakers are moving quickly to pass a GOP priority bill that would make it harder for some people who have been arrested but not convicted to bond out of jail without putting up cash.

Legislators in the House and Senate filed matching bills to change state bail practices earlier this week, echoing legislation that failed to pass in the regular session. On Saturday, committees in both chambers approved the bills and sent them to the full chambers after nearly three hours of debate in the Senate and nine hours in the House.

The sweeping bail legislation would change how and if people can be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved, while they are still legally presumed innocent. The bill would ban the release of those accused of violent crimes unless they had enough cash, as well as restrict charitable groups’ ability to pay to get people out of jail.

While the two Democrats on the Senate committee supported Senate Bill 6, House Democrats down the hall spoke out strongly against the identical House Bill 2, arguing it would lead to mass detention disproportionately affecting people of color, and it would create an overreliance on money in Texas’ pretrial system that is unfair to people who are poor. Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have a Republican majority.

During the hearings, the Republican bill authors, crime victims and their supporters argued new bail laws are needed to keep dangerous people behind bars before their trials, pointing to rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants accused of violent crimes having been released from jail on bond and then accused of new crimes.

Bill supporters have also fought against the increase in courts releasing defendants on personal bonds, which don’t require them to have cash to get out of jail but can include restrictions like GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug testing.

“SB 6 is legislation which is really a direct response to the increase in violent and habitual offenders being released on personal bonds along with low-cash bonds,” State Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican and author of the bill said Saturday. “We have failed our communities, we have failed our citizens, definitely we have failed the victims, and it’s time to do something about it.”

House Democrats and civil rights advocates opposing the legislation took aim at the bills’ continued reliance on cash bail, noting that it primarily penalizes low-income people.

“What does ability to post a cash bond, how does that make a community safe?” questioned state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “The bill pushes more people into the cash bail system by precluding their ability to have a personal bond in a laundry list of situations.”

See here and here for my blogging about this from the regular session. Note that these hearings were held before the voter suppression bill hearings, which is one reason why those went so late – they started late, too. You should also read Scott Henson’s testimony before the committee, in which he suggests that this will have a big negative effect on rural counties. You know how I feel about this, and you also know that if the Republican majority is determined to pass this, they can and they will. So let me remind you of this:

For years, civil rights groups and federal courts nationwide and in Texas have scrutinized bail systems’ reliance on cash. In Harris and Dallas counties, federal courts ordered changes to bail practices ruled unconstitutional because they led to the systematic detention of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime simply because they were poor.

In an ongoing federal lawsuit in Houston, civil rights attorneys pointed to the case of Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old man who caught the coronavirus in the Harris County jail and died. He’d been kept in jail for months, accused of stealing lawn equipment and meat from a garage. If he’d been able to pay about $100, he could have walked out of jail shortly after his arrest.

Whatever gets passed here is going to wind up in the federal courts, and the state is likely to lose. Not that the Republicans are concerned about that – these bills are about primaries, not policies. This whole session, and most of the regular session, were about primaries. I’m sure you can guess what my prescription for getting less of this in the future is.

Republicans take aim at bail reform

Lots of bad ideas in here.

Sen. Joan Huffman

Members of the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence held their first hearing this week over Senate Bill 21, a controversial bail reform bill backed by Republicans.

The purpose of the bill according to its author Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) is to prevent repeat violent offenders from committing new crimes after being released on personal bond. A personal bond is an agreement to appear in court that allows a defendant to be released without any financial obligation, unlike a cash bond or a surety bond with a bail company.

Opponents who testified against the legislation Thursday warned that language of the bill goes much further than simply attempting to keep violent criminals locked up.

“This is a work in progress, I know this bill is not perfect, I know it’s not ready to be passed,” Huffman, who chairs the committee said at the beginning of the hearing.

Under the text of the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have recently failed to appear in court for another offense, if they have been charged with any other crime after being released on bond, or if they have been recently convicted of a felony, Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, prostitution and many other non-violent offenses.

To be clear, so-called violent repeat offenders would still be able to be bailed out of jail, just not on personal bond, which waives the financial obligation meant to incentive someone to appear in court.

[…]

Mike Fields, a former Republican judge in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 14, testified against the bill calling it an “overreach” and a return to the bad old days.

Fields said he was an original defendant in the O’Donnell lawsuit, the major lawsuit that was filed against the county’s wealth-based bail detention system and which ended in a settlement that allowed for the release of a majority of misdemeanor defendants.

“I switched from my position of opposition to the O’Donnell lawsuit to agreeing with it, I was only one of two judges who did,” Fields said.

He said that the 72 homicides in Harris County committed by people out on bond in 2020 — a figure cited by Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg earlier in her testimony in support of the bill — were largely done by defendants with surety bond, or bonds posted by a bail bond company.

“I learned after 20 years of being a Republican judge in Harris County, that money does not make us safer,” Fields said. “Conditions make us safer. Assessment makes us safer. Using smarter strategies to keep people who need to be incarcerated, incarcerated, and those who don’t out. That’s what makes us safer.”

Fields said the conflation with misdemeanor and felony cases had led to legislation like SB 21 that would cast a broad net hurting taxpayers and slowing the work of criminal courts.

Emily Garrick, an attorney with the Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice nonprofit and one of the groups involved in the O’Donnell v. Harris County lawsuit, said SB 21 would allow people who don’t have money to stay in jail and those who do to be released from jail despite having similar charges — a violation of the decision by federal judges that ruled Harris County’s wealth-based pre-trial detention system to be unconstitutional for that very reason.

Another aspect of SB 21 grilled during the hearing was the bill’s restrictions on charitable bail organizations, or groups (often churches or advocacy groups) that organize bail funds to help defendants who could otherwise not pay for their release. Among other things, the bill would only allow charitable bail organizations to pay bail bonds for defendants charged with misdemeanors and would restrict them from paying no more than $2,000 for each defendant they want to help.

This Trib story from earlier in March covered a lot of this ground already, while Grits has noted that much of this bill is or will be in conflict with federal court rulings. This is a classic “solution in search of a problem” situation, with a side order of retaliation against Harris County and its Democratic judiciary. It’s very likely that this bill will evolve before it comes to a vote, but it’s much less likely that it will transform into something productive.

A poll about jailing people

Of interest.

New polling from The Appeal and Data for Progress shows that most Harris County residents support bail reform measures and want fewer people in the county’s overcrowded jail amid the COVID-19 pandemic

The polling shows 59 percent of residents in Harris County favor releasing people charged with low-level offenses. Support for that comes from 64 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans, according to the survey of almost 500 likely voters in Harris County.

The polling also found that 62 percent of people including 59 percent of Republicans, favor releasing people with less than six months left in their sentence.

In general, 65 percent of Harris County voters and two-thirds of Republican voters said they supported the use of ticking and citations as an alternative to jail.

The polling serves as proof that public opinion is firmly with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and other criminal justice reform advocates who have worked to overhaul the county’s cash bail system.

See here for more on the data. It’s meager, and I don’t see anything on the Data for Progress website to supplement it, so take it for what it is. As with all DfP polls, it was done via web panel, with 478 respondents. I point this out not because I think it’s a huge vindication of my own opinions, but because I’d really like to see a closer examination of these questions, and of the (frequently emotional rather than fact-based) arguments against them. I suspect that the potential to move these numbers, especially among partisans, is quite large, but we don’t know enough yet to say by how much. To the extent that we can have a thoughtful conversation about the costs and benefits of a policy to minimize the jail population along these lines, we should.

District court judges to be removed from the felony bail lawsuit case

Hopefully, this brings us a step closer to settling the case.

Harris County’s 23 felony judges are no longer being sued over uneven bail practices that plaintiffs say discriminate against poor defendants. The civil rights lawsuit against the county and its reform-minded sheriff will move forward without them.

The federal judge presiding over Russell v. Harris County ruled Wednesday that once the bulk of the state district judges withdraw an appeal of one of her earlier rulings, they will be automatically removed as defendants in the case.

Lawyers for poor defendants say the mechanics of who is listed as a party will not prevent them from pursuing their goal of full adversarial bail hearings. The judges were not part of the original lawsuit, but were added at Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s request. Their removal was precipitated by an appellate court ruling in a similar challenge to the bail system in Dallas County, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit found the judges were cloaked by immunity and should therefore be excluded from the Dallas lawsuit.

See here for the background. If as that previous story suggests Ken Paxton and the AG’s office are also removed from the case, that should further the likelihood of a settlement. It also may mean I don’t have to be mad at the district court judges who were being represented by Paxton, though that will depend on how things go from here. And for those of you who insist that changing the existing policies will lead to mayhem in the streets, I will remind you that many of the US Capitol insurrectionists, who actually caused mayhem in the streets and elsewhere, as well as three-time murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, are now out on bail. It’s not a question of “safety”, it’s a question of who has privilege and who does not.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

Sheriff Gonzalez hires jail administrator

Interesting.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

A former state jail inspector will oversee Harris County’s jail, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez announced Wednesday.

Shannon Herklotz, who worked for the Texas Commision on Jail Standards for more than 20 years, began serving as the jail’s chief of detentions on Monday, according to a statement from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office.

Harris County commissioners have for years tried to install a civilian administrator to oversee the county’s sprawling jail, which houses some 9,000 inmates at any given time and in recent years has been the site of several inmate suicides, assaults, or other violent incidents.

Herklotz was deputy director for the regulatory agency, which ensures all 239 Texas jails meet state standards.

“Our search for a Chief of Detentions targeted someone with the experience, values and vision to achieve our goal of cementing the Harris County Jail’s reputation for safety, innovation and professionalism,” stated Gonzalez. “These are qualities that our team displayed while managing the ongoing pandemic, and I am excited to see the continued transformation of the Harris County Jail under Shannon Herklotz’s leadership.”

Herklotz said he takes his duty seriously to ensure “care, custody and control of every person living inside our jail.”

“Keeping every person in the jail – including our staff and those entrusted into our care – safe and healthy is our first priority,” he said. “But more than that, we are committed to making sure people leave our jail better prepared to make a positive contribution to our community by connecting them with the resources and support they need to do so.”

The Harris County Jail is the largest jail in Texas, and the third-largest in the nation, with a current population of just over 9,000. Harris County officials have flirted with the idea of a civilian administrator several times over the last 30 years.

Commissioners considered trying to appoint a civilian administrator at least as far back as 1991, according to Chronicle archives. The move was driven by the soaring cost of the jail, and the increase in the sheriff’s budget, and as the sheriff’s office had struggled to control overcrowding in its facility.

As the story notes, this idea most recently surfaced in 2015, with the administrator being hired by and answering to Commissioners Court. That was shelved when a study concluded that a change in state law would be required for that. Existing law allows for the Sheriff to make such an appointment, however, and that’s what has happened here. I was skeptical at the time, mostly because I don’t trust Steve Radack, who was the original advocate for the idea, but then-Commissioner Gene Locke made what I thought were some decent arguments, so I was willing to listen. Locke’s main argument was that Sheriffs want to put their budget into patrol, which takes money away from jail administration, so having a jail administrator with a seat at the table can be a counterweight for that. We’ll see how that works when the administrator reports to the Sheriff. If Shannon Herklotz can help the jail consistently meet state standards – a problem it has had for some time now – and maybe also help figure out how to reduce its population, that will be a huge win.

Why can’t we get our jail population down?

I found this story from Thanksgiving weekend frustrating.

Harris County’s efforts to reduce its jail population have flatlined, despite more than $7.5 million aimed at alleviating systemic burdens so that the county could attempt to reduce its inmates by a targeted 21 percent.

Even after creating programs to lessen the population and reduce racial disparities in jail, criminal caseloads mounted and the facility returned nearly to capacity, county officials said. When Harris County in 2016 joined the nationwide Safety and Justice Challenge – meant to help retool the use of lockups – more than 8,789 people were in jail. On Nov. 23, that number was 8,724 — a decrease of less than 1 percent. To meet the program’s goal, the population would need to have fallen under 7,000.

County leaders next week will reapply for a final round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation to sustain progress made in the challenge overseen by the nonprofit Justice Management Institute. It remains to be seen whether how much the county will receive given the struggle to reduce the jail population.

Even if the county receives the full amount, achieving its goal remains distant, said Thomas Eberly, Harris County’s site coordinator for the challenge and program director of the Justice Management Institute, which works with localities to improve justice systems.

“I do think that the odds are not in Harris County’s favor because of past performance,” said Eberly. “We’re five years into this and the change that was expected hasn’t been achieved, and it’s quite honestly not even close.”

Some county leaders remain positive, however, citing implementation of a series of programs as part of the challenge. They include hiring a “fairness administrator” to address racial inequities and a community engagement outreach coordinator, as well as creating a cite-and-release program and a Reintegration Impact Court to divert those who have low-level cases from jail.

The MacArthur Foundation could award up to $660,000 for one year of sustainability and $500,000 for a second year.

The foundation has already provided $4.25 million to the county since 2015, and county commissioners in 2016 allocated more than $3.3 million from general fund reserves to help pay for reforms.

“We remain optimistic that we’re going to have some breakthroughs,” said Jim Bethke, Harris County’s director of justice administration.

It’s a long story that goes in a number of directions, so go read the whole thing. The main explanations cited are the damage to the courts caused by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, as well as the coronavirus pandemic, as both have contributed to long delays in resolving cases. The changeover in the courts due to the 2018 election plus the effort put into the bail reform program was also cited, though it’s not clear to me why that would contribute to the problem – the whole point of bail reform was to have fewer people rotting in jail while they wait for their trials. I needed more information to understand what that had to do with it.

Later in the story, the HPD cite and release program was listed as a potential mitigating factor going forward. It’s only been in effect since September – the Harris County Sheriff’s Office has had a similar policy since February. Diversion programs by the DA’s Office were also cited. I would have liked to know more about how much these could help, or more to the point could have helped if they had been in place longer. Not to put too fine a point on it, but one simple way to have fewer people in jail is to out fewer of them in jail in the first place. It’s very much in our power to arrest fewer people for minor non-violent offenses, with marijuana possession being at the top of that list. Circumstance can explain some of this problem, but our choices are a big part of it as well. There’s plenty we can do to change that.

Yes, bail reform is good

Here’s the first pieces of evidence, from Harris County, to support that.

A new report examining the impact of recent changes to bail practices in Harris County found that releasing more misdemeanor defendants from jail without requiring cash bail did not lead to an increase in arrests for reoffending.

The findings are being cited as a win by criminal justice reform advocates who have long argued that cash-bail requirements unfairly penalize poor defendants who can’t afford release from jail before trial.

Wednesday’s report was the first by independent monitors appointed by a federal judge as part of a settlement order in a lengthy lawsuit that led to changes in the bail system in Texas’ most populous county. The case has been noted by civil rights groups as the first to put America’s cash bail system on trial in federal court.

“This misdemeanor bail reform is working as intended and there are real results,” said Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and independent monitor of the reforms. “Many more people are released promptly, cash bond amounts are vastly reduced except in cases where there will be public safety concerns… [and] there has been no change in reoffending.”

[…]

The report found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within a year of their initial arrest had not changed since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.

The report also found the gap between white and Black defendants being released before trial narrowed under the county’s new system. Before the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before trial than Black people. Data on Hispanic defendants is unavailable.

Not included in the report is data on how often the defendants who were released without payment failed to show up at court hearings. Bail reform opponents across the country have used rises in missed court appearances as ammunition against releasing people on no-cash bonds. The report said appearance rates and reasons for missed hearings will be considered in future reports.

You can read the report for yourself. It’s not the be-all and end-all, as there are still questions about defendants released on PR bonds who would have had to pay bail before versus those who did pay bail, and about rates of showing up in court, but those will be answered in time. The point is, every apocalyptic prediction about murder and mayhem in the streets resulting from jaywalkers and pot smokers not being kept in jail has proven to be spectacularly wrong. Not that this should have been a surprise, since that has been the experience everywhere else this kind of bail reform has been tried, but that didn’t stop the doomsayers. In the meantime, many fewer people were exposed to the risks of being in jail for no good reason. That right there is a whole lot of good. The Chron has more.

Judges added to felony bail reform lawsuit

This could be a sign that things are about to happen.

All 23 Harris County felony judges have been added as proposed defendants in the lawsuit alleging that the region’s felony bail practices are discriminatory and damaging to poor defendants.

The amended filing came late Friday after a second judge on the court intervened in support of the 2019 civil rights lawsuit arguing that it’s unconstitutional to jail poor people before trial simply because they cannot afford bail. These two judges, Brian Warren and Chuck Silverman, could potentially become both defendants and intervenors.

Several other judges said they looked forward to being formally included in the case in order to make changes to the current protocol.

Lawyers for the indigent people at the jail asked in a motion Friday that nearly two dozen judges be included in the case. They said in court documents that amid rising COVID-19 infections at the jail, the judges have continued to mandate that thousands of arrestees come up with secured money bail without first determining that pretrial detention is necessary or the least-restrictive condition to ensure public safety or cooperation with court hearings.

These judges don’t routinely hold adversarial hearings to allow defendants to make their case about bail and make findings about defendants’ ability to pay bail, the motion said.

Warren, a Democrat who was elected as presiding judge of the 209th Criminal Court, defeating a judge who berated Black Lives Matter, said he supports “intelligent bond reform” in his request to join the case. Silverman, of the 183rd Criminal Court, was accepted as a party in the case Thursday, a day after he filed an unopposed motion to join it.

“The pandemic has brought this into stark relief,” Warren said. He noted that bail has disproportionately affected people of color.

“The implementation of bond reform is a complex issue. It requires well-reasoned and intelligent proposals,” his motion said.

The lawsuit was filed last January, and this is the first real news I’ve heard about it since. The misdemeanor bail reform lawsuit settlement was finalized in November and has been in operation since earlier that year. There are lawsuits in other counties over felony bail practices, such as in Dallas, but so far nothing has come to a courtroom.

A big difference between this lawsuit and the previous one in Harris County over misdemeanor bail practices is that all but one of the judges who were named as defendants in the earlier lawsuit were Republicans, and all but two of them (the one Democrat and one of the Republicans) opposed the plaintiffs’ arguments and refused to settle the suit. It wasn’t until Democrats swept the 2018 election, in part on a message of settling that lawsuit, that it came to its conclusion. In this case, all of the judges are Democrats. As of Friday, when this story was written, at least two of them have expressed a desire to join on the side of the plaintiffs. Brian Warren was mentioned in this story, and on Thursday we got this story about the first judge to speak up, Chuck Silverman.

Saying the bail system “perpetuates inequalities” and can have “devastating” consequences on lives and livelihoods, State District Chuck Silverman of the 183rd Criminal Court filed paperwork Wednesday to intervene in the 2019 federal civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of poor defendants stuck at the jail. In addition, fellow jurist Brian Warren, of the 209th Criminal Court, said he planned to file his own motion to join the case this week, with hopes of reforming the way judges handle with pretrial release.

Silverman said he thinks the majority of his colleagues on the felony bench want to revise how PR bonds work and “want to make the cash bail system obsolete or to make it work better.”

Like his colleagues on the bench, Silverman, a Democrat elected in 2018, is not a party in the lawsuit. He sought to intervene to ensure equal protection and due process rights are fairly administered, while protecting public safety.

Silverman said in an interview that negotiations on the bail lawsuit had been moving slowly and he learned in his civil practice prior to becoming a judge that the best way to push it forward and accomplish true bail reform was to intervene.

“We need systemic change in the cash bail system because it disproportionately affects minorities and the poor,” he said. “The time to do something proactive was now.”

The unopposed motion argues that cash bail discriminates against people who can’t access funds, often forcing them to settle for guilty pleas rather than await trial in lockup.

Neal Manne, one of the lawyers for the indigent plaintiffs, applauded Silverman’s “courageous” move and encouraged other judges to follow his lead.

“Any state judge looking in good faith at the cash bail situation in the felony courts in Harris County can see that the system is broken and requires reform,” Manne said. “I am delighted that Judge Silverman has acknowledged that the current situation violates the rights of poor people.”

I too would like to see all of the judges join with the plaintiffs to work towards a fair and equitable solution as quickly as possible. The way COVID-19 has burned through all the jails in the state, as well as the ever-increasing jail population, should make this an urgent priority, from a public health standpoint as well as a justice standpoint. I hope that most if not all of the judges will take similar action as Silverman and Warren have done, and I am damn sure that those who don’t will need to account for their actions in the next primary election. We know what is right, and we know what needs to be done. There’s plenty of room to negotiate the details and particulars, but the goal is clear and we need to get there. Let’s make this happen.

Meanwhile, the jail is filling up again

We really need to do something about this.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

The Harris County Jail population has been steadily rising since late April and is now approaching its pre-pandemic capacity despite early efforts to curb crowding, according to the sheriff’s office.

With an influx of inmates anticipated during the summer months, the jail is facing a “serious crisis,” according to a report Tuesday that a sheriff’s representative classified as “sobering.”

The update about the jail population came in a study the county commissioned from the Justice Management Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that works with government agencies to make their courts and jails more efficient.

“The justice system has been struggling since Hurricane Harvey,” Tom Eberly, the organization’s program director announced in video testimony before Harris County Commissioner’s Court. “Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, the justice system is on the verge of collapse in your county.”

If the anticipated pace of bookings follows previous patterns, the county could reach 10,000 inmates by Labor Day, according to the nonprofit group’s calculations. And the courts were already backed up before the virus, officials said.

[…]

The lawyers challenging the county’s bail system, who lost a bid for an injunction to order coronavirus releases, said thousands of felony defendants are stuck at the jail awaiting trial simply because they can’t pay cash bail. The vast majority of the population is made up of up pretrial felony detainees.

“Their constitutional rights are being violated, and their health and safety are being jeopardized by COVID-19, which is rampant at the jail,” said Neal Manne, of Susman Godfrey, who works pro bono on the bail cases. “Though Sheriff Gonzales wants to solve the problem, he can’t solve it by himself. No one else is doing anything other than talking about it, week after week, month after month, as COVID-19 surges.”

In the meantime, coronavirus infections have continued to increase, with 993 inmates testing positive since the start of the pandemic.

The pandemic has cramped the jail’s holding capacity, which changes day to day depending upon how many people are quarantined and how much the jail staff must space them out on the cell blocks to help prevent the spread of the virus. For example, 835 inmates who have had the virus and remain in custody have now recovered. But 778 are being kept in observational quarantine, meaning they are not showing symptoms, but they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

Another 600-plus people are housed in what the jail calls “buffer quarantine” because they are new to the jail, according to the sheriff’s office. And nearly 300 convicted inmates are ready to be transferred to state prison but Texas Department of Criminal Justice is not accepting them during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the jail population is increasing by 115 inmates per week and as of May 1, the county had more than 36,000 pending felony cases, Eberly said. If no new felony arrests were made in the coming months, it would still take 13 months to dispose of the backlog, he said.

However, if the system keeps shuffling along as is, it will take 4½ years to catch up, the study found.

Statewide, jail populations also decreased in the first months of the pandemic and have begun rising going into the summer, a normal trend outside of the unusual circumstances this year, said Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

Population spikes at county jails largely stem from backlogs in the courts, he said.

“It’s going to be incumbent on Harris County to manage its jail population properly,” Wood said.

You have to wonder how much worse this would be if there were a bunch of misdemeanor inmates awaiting trial because they couldn’t make bail as well. There’s basically three things we can do here. One is to release a bunch of the low-risk inmates who couldn’t come up with the cash for bail. That’s on the judges and the District Attorney, and while there’s been some movement on that, there could be a lot more. Two is to get the courts to the point where they can make a dent in that backlog, which is going to be a hell of a challenge given the fact that the court buildings are still suffering from Harvey, and oh yeah, that global pandemic. Maybe just consider dropping a bunch of low-level charges, divert as many drug charges as possible, and offer as many deferred adjudication deals as possible. There’s some risk to this approach, but what we’re doing right now is not sustainable. And three, maybe now is a good time to just stop arresting people on low-level drug possession charges. Turn down the incoming spigot, and stop adding to the problem. I don’t know where this ends, but the direction we’re going right now doesn’t lead anywhere good.

Abbott’s stay-in-jail order blocked and then unblocked

This was Friday.

A state district judge in Travis County has temporarily blocked enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to limit jail releases during the new coronavirus pandemic. She cited unconstitutional provisions and overreach of executive power in the gubernatorial order.

State District Judge Lora Livingston issued her ruling Friday night after a lawsuit this week challenged the governor’s order that prohibited judges from releasing some inmates without paying bail. Abbott’s order was prompted by some local officials moving to reduce the number of people locked up in disease-prone county jails. He said “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.”

Abbott’s order banned the release of jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime on no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas argued in their lawsuit filed Wednesday that Abbott’s order violates the constitutional separation of powers and keeps only poor defendants in jails. The plaintiffs, represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project, asked the court to declare Abbott’s order unconstitutional and an overreach of his power.

[…]

In a virtual hearing Friday, Livingston repeatedly questioned how the governor’s order affected public safety and whether he could make a widespread decision to take away judges’ authority to individually assess defendants.

“I’m just trying to understand how this order without regard to any particular specific information about a case can blanketly decide that a personal bond is not necessary or appropriate or required in a particular situation,” she said. “I’m troubled by the sort of blanket nature of that order in the same way that apparently the governor was concerned about a blanket order from judges that hasn’t yet happened but could theoretically be entered.”

[…]

“What confusion is solved by the governor taking action in this way when in my mind, and apparently in the mind of the Harris County district judges, there’s no confusion at all?” she asked Biggs. “I think the judges do what they do and that Harris County order seemed to bear that out: This is what judges do everyday and we will handle it, thank you very much.”

She later added that the county judge can’t tell local judges how to make decisions. “That’s not how separation of powers works; that’s not how reality works.”

See here for the previous update. Judge Livingston more or less addressed the question I had raised, which is that given how the judges in Harris County had already said they were going to operate, what was Abbott’s order even doing? This ruling was to in effect until April 24, at which time there will be another hearing. But then the Supreme Court stepped in:

The Texas Supreme Court has revived Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, the high court stayed a state district judge’s ruling from Friday night that blocked Abbott’s order. The district judge cited unconstitutional provisions and an overreach of executive power in her temporary order against Abbott. The Supreme Court’s order is also temporary, with responses due to the court Monday evening.

The legal battle stems from an Abbott order issued last month during the state disaster. The governor’s order prohibits judges from releasing jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime without paying bail — banning no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes and with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

A copy of Judge Livingston’s ruling is here. I would refer you to the Grits for Breakfast analysis of why the plaintiffs should win on the merits, which now we have to hope that the Supreme Court is able to recognize as well. The Chron has more.

Another lawsuit filed over Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

There’s no slowdown in the litigation business, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the new coronavirus pandemic is facing a second court challenge arguing his order violates the constitutional separation of powers and discriminates against poor criminal defendants.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas sued Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton Wednesday in Travis County district court. The plaintiffs are represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Last month, Abbott issued an executive order that suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes without paying bail. The order largely banned judges across the state from releasing such defendants on no-cost, personal bonds, which can include conditions like drug testing and regular check-ins. The attorney general’s office has said no-cost release could be considered for individuals based on health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, which some attorneys said takes weeks.

But, under Abbott’s order, people accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still quickly be released from jail if they had access to cash. The lawsuit argues Abbott’s order ignores constitutionally-mandated separation of powers by taking away judges’ discretion. It also states the system put in place under the order creates an unconstitutional wealth-based system, similar to those that federal courts have slammed in Texas counties.

“The harms of this order are not abstract: poor people are being detained pretrial with no way to escape a possible jail outbreak,” said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The governor has overstepped his legal authority, and this is causing significant harm on the ground.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the lawsuit is here and the full statement from the ACLU is here. I get that this lawsuit is over the authority Abbott has to suspend various criminal laws, but it’s a little unclear to me what the actual stakes are. The misdemeanor court judges, who are plaintiffs in this suit, have already said they will continue to abide by the bail lawsuit agreement, while the felony court judges are doing their own thing. I guess we’ll find out when we start having hearings. If you’re a lawyer and want to help clarify this for me, please do. Grits has more.

Endorsement watch: Ed again

This is an easy call.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

[Sheriff Ed] Gonzalez, 50, a soft-spoken Houston native, former councilman and 18-year veteran of the Houston Police Department, ran as a reformer and he hasn’t disappointed in his first term. From taking a bold stance in support of bail reform to minimizing the use of solitary confinement to expanding vocational programs to women in the jail, changes big and small have prioritized public safety as well as fairness and the dignity of inmates.

To address the opioid crisis, Gonzalez made the Harris County jail the first in Texas to offer Vivitrol, a drug that helps curb cravings and prevent relapses. In October, the jail began equipping departing inmates grant-funded supplies of the drug naloxone, which can save lives by reversing overdoses.

Certainly, bringing a jail of 8,500 inmates that was under two consent decrees when he took office into full compliance with state standards was no easy task. The sheriff has struggled at times to address vexing problems such as jail suicides, of which there were five in a span of two years. With new protocols in place, however, there have been none in the last year, a trend we hope continues.

[…]

Gonzalez’s track record and his drive to continue reform have earned our recommendation for sheriff in the Democratic primary.

They mention the recent cite and release policy as another reform effort Gonzalez has initiated. I think Sheriff Gonzalez has had a pretty darned solid first term, and he did not draw serious opposition. Like I said, this is an easy call.

Cite and release

This has been a long time coming.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County law enforcement officials on Tuesday will begin a “cite and release” program that treats some misdemeanor charges like court citations for speeding tickets, just days after the district attorney’s office said it could not fully comply with the initiative.

The program, which applies to six charges handled in Harris County’s misdemeanor courts, comes amid countywide discussions about bail reform and over-incarceration, as well as District Attorney Kim Ogg’s repeated requests that Harris County Commissioners Court fund more prosecutors for her office.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office is the first policing agency in the area that is reported to be participating in the program approved by a working group that includes judges. After voicing concerns in a letter to the sheriff, Ogg’s office agreed to the new procedures.

Ogg’s office sent the Chronicle a copy of the letter but declined further comment.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez noted that Harris County is behind the curve on using cite and release, as other Texas counties began employing it after the state Legislature in 2007 authorized such programs. The hope is that fewer bookings will allow deputies to have more time to patrol neighborhoods, while people who are eligible can stay with their families and keep going to work, he said.

“This administrative policy should help reduce our pre-trial county jail population and provide local costs savings to taxpayers,” the sheriff said. “Citations can divert lower risk individuals from detention, reserving limited space and resources for more dangerous individuals.”

The class A and B misdemeanor charges that apply are criminal mischief, $100-$750; graffiti, $100-$2,500; theft, $100-$750; theft of service $100-$750; contraband in a correctional facility; and driving while license invalid.

If a resident is stopped on one of those offenses, the sheriff’s office will run a check for active warrants and contact the district attorney’s office to see if the person is eligible for cite and release, according to an internal memo about the procedures.

Once prosecutors accept the charges, the deputy completes the citation as long as it’s signed off by the defendant. The suspect is given a court date on the spot and then released.

These are exactly the types of defendants who would be at the top of the list for a personal recognizance bond, so it makes sense to treat them this way. I feel like we’ve been talking about this for a long time, including with HPD, but it just hasn’t happened before now. As the story notes it’s happened as a direct result of the 2018 election, as the Democratic misdemeanor court judges were a driving force behind it. This is the moment, and it’s clearly the way to go. And now that the Sheriff’s office has adopted this policy, maybe HPD will follow.

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.

[…]

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.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

At least I assume it’s the last one. I’ve been thinking this was all over but for the formality for months now, so what do I know?

Dianna Williams has witnessed the “collateral damage” of jailing on the fabric of a family. The 61-year-old criminal justice advocate told a federal judge Monday that for generations, her relatives lived paycheck to paycheck and could not afford cash bail when her father and then her brother and her son were held pretrial on low level drug charges.

Mary Nan Huffman offered an opposing take to the judge presiding over a deal upending Harris County money bail for low level offenses. She recounted how her friend was walking with her 3-month-old when a man in a red truck trailed her and later showed up in her yard, masturbating with a knife in his hand. Under the new bail deal, the man would never see a judge and no one would hear that he was a three-time felon who’d been to prison for rape, indecent exposure or kidnapping, said Huffman, a spokesperson for Houston Police Officers’ Union.

Ultimately, the sheriff who oversees the third largest jail in the country sought to assuage fears of constituents on both sides of this contentious issue, telling Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal the consent decree approved last summer provides fundamental guarantees of justice enshrined in American law and warning against the inclination to let scary scenarios involving particular cases be the foundation of a bail system.

“I don’t think it’s effective for us to develop public policy on outliers,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during the court gathering known as a fairness hearing. “We have to rely on research and facts.”

The hearing attended by six misdemeanor judges who support the historic settlement and three commissioners court members, two of whom oppose it, and about 100 stakeholders lasted three hours, with the judge saying she would consider the input and issue an order soon.

[…]

In a typical class action, a fairness hearing offers class members a chance to express concerns with a settlement. The hearing Monday was unique in that nearly all the speakers were not parties in the lawsuit.

Here’s a preview story of the hearing. I think we all know the basic outline at this point, so all I really care about is when we’ll get the final order from Judge Rosenthal. And then we can relitigate everything in the 2020 elections.

Ogg continues to have problems with the bail settlement

I don’t like this.

Kim Ogg

District Attorney Kim Ogg is rallying police officers across Harris County to show up in federal court en masse to oppose to a landmark bail reform agreement at a final hearing set for this month.

She emailed about 100 police chiefs to invite them to attend an Oct. 28 court proceeding before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to lend support on an issue she says “endangers the public.”

In addition to recruiting top brass to the hearing, Ogg also requested that her lieutenants be present to support her concerns about portions of the settlement that allowed most defendants arrested on minor offenses to await trial at home without posting up-front cash bail, according to her spokesman, Dane Schiller.

Ogg expressed misgivings about the proposed consent decree approved last summer by Commissioners Court after months of intensive meetings between county leaders, judges and the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the 2016 class action.

Ogg, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, is among a number of parties, including many from the bail bond industry, who submitted concerns about the settlement in court during the summer.

“The district attorney has always supported bail reform, so that nobody is held just because they are poor, but she also says public safety should always be considered,” Schiller said.

[…]

The county public defender, who has been friends with Ogg since law school, said he suspects Ogg’s approach will be perceived as overkill by Rosenthal, the region’s highest ranking lifetime appointee to the federal bench.

“A courtroom full of police officers is not going to intimidate her,” said Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin. “She might be insulted that they would do that to her.”

“It’s over the top, and this kind of bravado backfires every time,” Bunin added. He said the majority of the concerns Ogg raised were resolved by a judicial rule passed in January.

See here and here for the background. I agree with Alex Bunin here, this is not going to help and will serve as fuel for Ogg’s primary opponents. The fears being expressed are overblown, and frankly it’s fine by me if the county has to experience a little inconvenience to accommodate a non-violent offender who need assistance getting back to court. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather pay for an Uber for that guy than pay to feed, clothe, and house him for some number of weeks or months. Maybe – stay with me here – we could arrest fewer of these non-violent mostly drug offenders in the first place, which would go a long way towards reducing inconvenience for everyone. In the meantime, the bail agreement is in place and it is going to be the law. Let’s all do what we can to make it work.

One more step towards the bail lawsuit settlement

We’re almost there. I know it feels like we’ve been there for awhile and are just waiting for it all to become official, but there were still a few checkpoints to get through first, and this is one of them.

In a move that signals she will likely approve a landmark bail agreement, a federal judge in Houston issued a lengthy opinion Thursday meticulously addressing concerns raised by outside parties to the proposed consent decree that would govern bail practices in Harris County for the next seven years.

The 55-page document from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal is not the norm in that preliminary approvals at this point in most class action suits usually take up half a page, at most two pages, according to lawyers familiar with typical dockets.

In the opinion, the judge addresses whether the deal was properly negotiated, whether it addressed the needs of all parties and whether the solution was adequate given the potential delays, costs and impact on public safety.

Specifically, she said the plan hit on the key factors required: it addressed the constitutional violations, protected poor defendants, safeguarded the public and reduced the chances that defendants would miss hearings.

While atypical, Rosenthal’s comprehensive memorandum and opinion are in keeping with how the judge runs her office, according to a former law clerk who served in the Houston federal courthouse.

“I’d say this is pretty standard for a judge who is thorough to a fault,” the former clerk said. “It definitely signals ultimate approval, but the point isn’t to telegraph.”

The clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, continued, “It’s simply to respond to the filings in a complete and timely way.”

[…]

Two county commissioners who opposed the resolution — Jack Cagle and Steve Radack — submitted their concerns to the judge along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, the Pasadena police chief and several organizations. The objectors included the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association, the Texas School District Police Chiefs’Association, the Professional Bondsmen of Harris County, Equal Justice Now, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc. and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

The parties directly involved in the case then submitted detailed responses to these amicus or “friend of the court” briefs.

Rosenthal said “the amicus briefs and objections do not identify an adequate basis to deny preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and consent decree.”

See here for the background. Ogg, who continues to talk about the imminent settlement in a way that makes one think she’s asking for trouble in her forthcoming primary election, made a statement about how it’s now all up to the judges to make this work. It’s always been all up to the judges, it’s just that in the past they did a lousy job of that. There’s a “final fairness hearing” set for October 21, and I’m guessing we’ll get the officially signed and sanctioned settlement agreement some time after that. I’m ready for this to be over and done.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

Final bail settlement reached

We are coming to the end of a very long road.

A long-awaited settlement in Harris County’s historic bail lawsuit won tentative approval Friday from all parties, setting up a possible end to a contentious system that kept poor people behind bars on low-level charges while those with money could walk free.

The agreement — if approved by a federal judge and county officials — would formally adopt the judge’s findings and modernize the way local officials handle bail hearings for the steady stream of people arrested every day on misdemeanors.

Key reforms in the lengthy consent decree include revised judicial protocol, access to more public defense services, open court hours for defendants to clear or prevent warrants, as well as text reminders about hearings and a bail education program for officials and the public. The county will have a court-appointed monitor for seven years to oversee implementation.

The county also would agree to pay about $4.7 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, on top of the $9.1 million already spent to contest the lawsuit. An additional $2.1 million in legal fees has been waived by the Susman Godfrey firm.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has championed bail and criminal justice reform for decades, called the agreement one of the highlights of his career.

“It’s a major civil rights victory that will have national implications,” Ellis said. “This fixes a broken system that has traditionally punished people based on how much money they have before they are convicted of a crime.”

The deal could provide a road map for other jurisdictions around the country to rethink their bail systems amid widespread overcrowding and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

Commissioners Court is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal could then consider approving it after a hearing Aug. 21.

See here for some background. I got a press release from the Texas Organizing Project on Thursday about this, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the news story. I can predict with confidence that Commissioners Court will approve this by a 3-2 margin. Elections have consequences. Kudos to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that addresses bail practices, which courts recently deemed unconstitutional in the state’s two most populous counties for discriminating against poor criminal defendants who can’t pay for their release from jail.

But a last-minute amendment actually limits who can be released from behind bars without having cash.

Reform advocates have called for a system that could get poor, nonviolent defendants out of jail before their trial, but the amendment by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, is more restrictive than current law on no-cost releases. It would not allow judicial officers to release defendants on no-cost bonds for numerous reasons, including if they haven’t shown up to a court hearing in the previous two years, were charged with a violent offense or were charged with a crime that involves more than 4 grams of a controlled substance.

House Bill 2020 was one of several bail reform measures filed this year after federal court rulings, jail deaths and a state trooper’s murder drew attention to Texas’ pretrial jailing practices after the last legislative session. As it was presented to the chamber, the bill would have required officials to consider a defendant’s risk of danger or skipping court before making bail decisions. The successful amendment nixed that requirement if a defendant is released on a preset bail amount.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he worked in coordination with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on the measure, but it has changed significantly since it was filed in March. One of the most notable revisions before coming to the floor was that it no longer puts the power over systemic bail changes under the governor’s office.

[…]

Longoria’s amendment drastically alters the bill, but he emphasized that the move to restrict release for defendants on personal bonds — which have no upfront cost — for some defendants was based on safety, noting that it limited no-cost release for sexual assault and family violence offenses.

“It was more of a community safety issue,” he told The Texas Tribune after the bill passed. “A lot of judges don’t have the proper training to basically admonish the defendants and set proper bond.”

The amendment went against what many advocates have pushed for, and Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he would push to have the Senate remove it if the bill finally passes the House.

“It certainly would contribute to inequality in the system, and it could contribute to dangerous people who have money being released when they shouldn’t,” he said.

Some bail reform advocates have also criticized the bill for still relying on money bail instead of presuming release on no-cost bonds for nonviolent defendants. At a hearing last month, the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project claimed the bill at that time didn’t adequately address federal court rulings that said Harris and Dallas counties’ bail practices kept people in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bonds, and the group called for individual bail hearings within two days. The organization also said the bill’s requirement of a risk assessment would prohibit judges from automatically releasing from jail most misdemeanor defendants on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice amid legal woes the county faced from the federal ruling.

“We would like to see … that they’re still allowed to make a decision to automatically release defendants on really low-level, nonviolent offense,” Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the organization, said at the hearing.

Amendments to allow counties to release defendants on no-cost bonds before a risk assessment and to address the court rulings that called for individualized bail hearings failed Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Earlier bills by Rep. Andrew Murr and Sen. John Whitmire appear to be dead at this point, so it’s this bill or nothing. Grits believes none of these bills were going to address the main constitutional flaws in the existing system, which should be clarified in the coming months by the Fifth Circuit. After reading through this story, I’m inclined to agree. If this bill falls short of what the court is likely to order, what’s the point? Whatever the case, it’s up to the Senate now.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

A lawsuit against bail reform

That would be a No from me.

A Harris County judge has sided with lawyers for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and a slate of new Democratic judges vying to loosen misdemeanor bail rules this weekend, rather than grant a request of three bail bond companies that would have delayed the start of the proposed revisions .

The companies argued Thursday that the court-ordered bail reform — believed to be a key step in a lengthy legal fight over the pre-trial detention of poor, low-level offenders — would jeopardize their Houston bail bonds business.

“They won’t get to write as many bail bonds as they did before and they won’t make as much money as they did before,” said Allan Van Fleet, a lawyer representing the judges.

[…]

The reform, the companies argue, violates state law because it would guarantee many defendants a specific type of bail without first providing them individual hearings before a judge, and because it would require the sheriff to reject some bonds that otherwise would be valid under state law, among other reasons.

“We have a constitutional right to make our living by bail bonds and if they want to amend the way the things are, they can do that but it still has to be by state law,” said Kevin Pennell, who represented Set ‘Em Free Bail Bonds, A Better Bail Bond and Advantage Bail Bonds in the county suit filed Thursday.

Eightieth Civil Court Judge Larry Weiman countered the argument before he denied the order.

“Doesn’t the court have to balance the constitutional right of the defendants, those who are arrested and charged with a crime,” Weiman asked, before resetting the temporary injunction hearing to March 11.

I’ll bet tobacco farmers used to make a pretty good living, too. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sorry for the societal and legal changes that led to the decline of that profession. There will still be a need for bail bonds going forward. There just won’t be as much of a need for them. That is as it should be. A hearing to review the proposed settlement in the original lawsuit will be on March 8. We’ll see where we stand then.

Commissioners Court rejects Ogg’s request for more prosecutors

I fully expected that Commissioners Court going from 4-1 Republican to 3-2 Democratic after the last election would signal big changes in how business was done in Harris County, but I didn’t expect this to be the first milestone on the new path.

Kim Ogg

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected Kim Ogg’s request for 102 new prosecutors, a stinging public defeat for the first-term Democratic district attorney by members of her own party.

The rejection came less than 24 hours after a former assistant district attorney filed paperwork to challenge Ogg in next year’s primary, a sign criminal justice reformers may have lost patience with the self-described progressive after helping elect her in 2016.

The three Democratic members of Commissioners Court — commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia and County Judge Lina Hidalgo —supported increasing the district attorney’s budget by 7 percent, in line with increases for other county departments. Ogg had asked for a 31 percent increase, which would grow her prosecutor corps by a third and include 42 additional support staff.

“This is not the only way, and certainly not the most cost-effective way to decrease prosecutor caseloads,” Hidalgo said.

[…]

Ogg, who did not attend the court meeting, issued a statement after the vote.

“We will continue to fight every day to ensure that justice is done in every case for every crime victim, every defendant and the community,” she said. “Harris County must have a district attorney’s office with sufficient resources to ensure that all cases are resolved fairly and in a timely manner.”

See here for the background and here for an earlier Chron story that previewed the Tuesday Commissioners Court meeting. Ogg had addressed the criticism of her proposal, and also answered the question about maybe hiring prosecutors on a shorter-term basis, but it wasn’t enough to get any of her fellow Dems in line. I would say her best bet right now is to take what the ACLU of Texas said in a press release following the Commissioners’ vote to heart:

“Adding more prosecutors in Harris County is not the ultimate solution for reducing mass incarceration and fighting racism in the criminal system. While the Harris County Commissioners Court has taken a more measured approach than the initial proposal, the addition of new prosecutors must come with clearly defined standards for reducing incarceration — such as expanding pretrial diversion, reducing case disposition time, and reducing existing caseloads — instead of prosecuting more cases. The commissioners were right to call for studies into how best to improve the district attorney’s office, and District Attorney Ogg should commit to specific plans for how any newly hired prosecutors will be used. That’s accountability.”

“There is no question that Harris County prosecutors have high caseloads, but the solution is not to add more prosecutors in a cycle that endlessly ratchets up the size of the criminal system. The smartest way to reduce caseloads is to dismiss more cases, identify more cases for diversion, and invest significantly in substance use disorder and mental health treatment that help people who need it and prevent them from ending up awaiting prosecution in the first place.”

Seems to me this conversation will need to include HPD, the Sheriff’s office, and all of the other law enforcement organizations in Harris County as well. If the DA needs to prioritize what cases get prosecuted, they will need to prioritize what arrests they make. Commissioners Court needs to do its part, too, by working to expand mental health offerings. The Lege could also pitch in here, though for obvious reasons I’ll keep my expectations low. Everyone has a part to play – Kim Ogg’s part is bigger than the rest, but it’s not just her. Maybe by the time next year’s budget is being discussed, we’ll have less to argue about.

And speaking of next year:

Audia Jones, the former prosecutor who on Monday filed paperwork to challenge Ogg, spoke against the proposal. Jones said she left the district attorney’s office in December in part because she said Ogg’s administration has been too reluctant to offer jail diversion to defendants of color, in contrast with their white counterparts.

She said temporary court closures caused by Hurricane Harvey are not a driver of increasing caseloads, as Ogg contends, but rather are a result of her administration’s policies.

Murray Newman, who had some earlier thoughts about the Ogg proposal, notes that Audia Jones is married to Criminal Court Judge DaSean Jones. I’m not sure how that conflict gets sorted out if she wins (one obvious remedy would be for Judge Jones to step down), but that’s a concern for another day. I would have picked County Attorney Vince Ryan as the first member of the class of 2020 to get a potential primary opponent – designating a treasurer is a necessary step to running for office, but it doesn’t commit one to running – but here we are.

How many prosecutors do we need?

Opinions differ, but it’s a big question in Harris County right now.

Kim Ogg

Hanover is one of many prosecutors Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said are overburdened — the reason she has asked Commissioners Court for a budget that would fund 102 additional assistant district attorneys and more than 40 support staff. Ogg said the surge is needed to clear a backlog in cases exacerbated by Harvey, a driver of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail.

Her proposal to expand the prosecutor corps by a third, however, has evolved into a proxy battle over the future of criminal justice reform in Harris County. Ogg finds herself so far unable to persuade Democrats on Commissioners Court as well as reform groups, who have questioned her self-identification as a progressive and said her proposal would lead to more residents in jail.

“Simply adding prosecutors is the strategy that got us here in the first place, with this mentality that the only thing we can spend money on is police and prosecutors,” said Jay Jenkins, project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.

Ogg, a first-term district attorney who unseated a Republican in 2016 with the support of many progressive groups, said these critics fail to grasp the on-the-ground realities of her prosecutors, whose heavy workloads mean they sometimes are the reason cases are delayed and defendants languish in jail.

Ogg pledged to send the first 25 new hires to the felony trial bureau, where she said they can help achieve the reforms progressives seek, such as identifying low-risk defendants who can be sent out of the criminal justice system without a conviction.

“Who else is going to divert offenders who should re-enter society, and prosecute the people who should be incarcerated to protect the public?” she said. “This is a question of how fast do our funders really want to reform our justice system?”

Ogg laid out her argument in an interview Wednesday at the district attorney’s temporary quarters at 500 Jefferson, where a regular shuttle takes prosecutors to the criminal justice complex more than a mile away.

Ogg said since taking office, she is proud to have diverted 38,000 defendants for a variety of low-level offenses, including marijuana possession, misdemeanor theft, first time DUI and mental health-related charges such as trespassing. With an active caseload that jumped from about 15,000 when Harvey hit to 26,523 this week, she said prosecutors are not always able to give victims and defendants the attention they deserve.

Her staff noted Harris County’s 329 prosecutors are less than half the number in Illinois’ Cook County, which is only slightly more populous.

“With adequate staff, we’ll be able to offer pleas that are reasonable earlier,” Ogg said. “We’ll be able to focus on public safety to make sure we don’t let someone go who is really a risk and threat to either his family or his community.”

She sought to mollify the concerns of progressives who fear it could lead to more people in jail, saying, “There’s no data showing that more prosecutors equals more prosecutions.”

Here are the original statements put out by TOP and the TCJC. This subsequent Chron story gives some more detail.

“We would like to stop the clock and take time to consider other options, primarily looking at funding for mental health issues,” organizer Terrance Koontz said.

Koontz said TOP is looking at housing options for nonviolent offenders who may need to reset their lives.

“We’re talking about individuals who are being arrested for minor drug charges or being homeless on the street or having a mental problem, and they definitely shouldn’t be sitting in jail,” Koontz said. “We are not here to attack D.A. Ogg, we just want more time to consider our options.”

[…]

Doug Murphy, president of the Harris County Criminal Lawyers Association, agrees with Ogg’s proposal.

“Having witnessed the daily reality of their lack of manpower what we’re seeing is Harris County was the fastest moving docket in the country, we called it the rocket docket, and it slowed it down to a snail’s pace,” said Murphy. “What we got is bloated dockets because they don’t have the manpower to work these cases up and marshal the evidence.”

Murphy believes more prosecutors would help pick up the pace of getting cases to trial, resolved and even dismissed. “If I weren’t witnessing daily the backlog and the frustration, I would be in total agreement with the other organization,” Murphy said.

Koontz still worries that more prosecutors would ultimately mean more arrests and more people wrongly incarcerated.

“We just want to consider other viable options outside of just hiring the prosecutors,” Koontz said. “Because although it does not seem like putting more people in jail, at the end of the day we feel like more people will end up in jail than not and at the end of the day its black and brown people who are overwhelmingly being incarcerated.”

Honestly, I think everyone is raising valid concerns. The chaos of Harvey has caused a big backlog for the DA’s office, and it doesn’t serve anyone’s interests for cases to drag out because there just isn’t the time or the bandwidth among overworked assistant DAs to get to them. On the other hand, Kim Ogg made promises about how she was going to reform the system, and a big part of that was not prosecuting a lot of low-level crimes or crimes involving people who need mental health treatment. They also worry that while Ogg might not backtrack on her stated priorities, the next DA who inherits her bigger office may not share those priorities. It’s not at all unreasonable to worry that an increase in prosecutors will be counter to Ogg’s stated goals.

So how to resolve this? Grits suggests increasing the Public Defender’s office by an equivalent amount – Commissioner Rodney Ellis has suggested something like this as well, and the PDO is seeking more funding, so that’s on the table. I like that idea, but I also think it may be possible to assuage the concerns about what happens after the backlog is cleared by putting a time limit on the hiring expansion. Is it possible to hire people on one or two year non-renewable contracts, to get the office through the backlog but then have it return to a smaller size afterward? I’m just spitballing here, but if we agree that clearing the backlog is a worthy goal, then we ought to be able to find a way to ensure that doing so doesn’t lead to mission creep. I’m open to other ideas, but I feel like this is something that needs to lead to a compromise, not one side winning and the other side losing. I hope we can get there.

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

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.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

Bail practices lawsuit hearing

We so need to be done with this.

More than a dozen Harris County misdemeanor judges contend that public safety would be imperiled if they followed an “untenable” new pretrial release order by a Houston federal judge who has found the current county bail system unconstitutional.

An appellate lawyer representing 14 county court-at-law judges, all who are Republicans, argued before an appeals court in Houston Tuesday that Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s revised instructions overstepped the narrow directions she was given in June by the federal appeals court to fine tune elements of her initial order. The revision afforded liberties that the appeals court did not mandate, allowing people arrested on certain offenses be released as promptly as those who are able to secure money bail, the judges’ lawyer argued.

“Since the Magna Carta money bail has been seen as sufficient surety and wealth is an inevitable factor…when that surety is money bail,” said Charles Cooper, a Washington D.C. lawyer representing the judges.

Many of the judges won’t be on the bench much longer to oversee the new bail policies, since seven are not seeking re-election this fall.

An attorney for the indigent defendants argued that Rosenthal’s order did not stray from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals instructions, nor does it create “irreparable harm” for the courts and the public. The courts can impose “unaffordable bail” if they can justify it, he said.

“A period of ‘wealth based detention’ is OK, but you have to show that you’re serving some interest,” said Alec Karakatsanis, who represents the indigent defendants in the class action suit.

See here for the most recent update. Just a reminder, this is all about the initial injunction. The case itself has not been heard, just the request for a restraining order, which is what is being appealed. Also as a reminder, we can ensure that there are no future plaintiffs for this lawsuit in November. You know, in case you needed another reason to vote. A three-judge panel will rule on this request, and we’ll see where we go from there.