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Pretrial Services

Still a few bugs in the system

A continuing story.

While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.

The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.

“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”

Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.


By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.

Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.

He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.

“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.

Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.

It’s a little hard to say what is going on here, based on this story. There’s a lot of he-said/she-said in there. My basic premise all along is that the county has very little credibility on this issue, so I generally discount the complaints from Commissioners and judges about how hard this all is and how they’re Doing Their Very Best and Just Need A Little More Time and so on and so forth. Every action by the county – specifically, by those who continue to fight to support the status quo – is one of foot-dragging and reluctance to make changes, even small ones. I’ve yet to see a show of good faith. If we ever get to that point, then maybe I’ll take their complaints seriously. Until then, I say quit whining and do what the judge ordered you to do.

County’s new bail system not quite ready

Real soon now.

Harris County’s long-trumpeted new system for setting bail for people awaiting trial will be up and running by the end of July, nearly a month later than the July 1 effective date the county had promised a federal judge, officials said Monday.

The new approach won a green light late Friday from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who issued an order saying the new system did not violate an April ruling that threw out the previous system as unconstitutional.

But Rosenthal warned in a blunt 200-word footnote that the new rules “do not change much,” indicating county judges must stop requiring cash bail for low-level, misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford it.

The new rules will be based on a risk-assessment tool designed to help the county’s judges determine a defendant’s likelihood of appearing in court and staying out of trouble. The system imposes a fee schedule ranging from $500 to $5,000 for misdemeanors and recommends upfront payment from most people.

“Like the old schedule … secured money bail is the standard recommendation for most categories of misdemeanor arrestees,” the judge wrote. “The approved changes are hardly different.”

A lead attorney for the people suing over the bail system said Rosenthal’s order showed frustration with the county.

“The interesting thing is that she notes the county has not done what it said it was going to do,” said Neal Manne, a partner at Susman Godfrey, a law firm providing its services at no charge.


Next week, staffers will get training on how to use the public safety assessment, a standardized formula developed in partnership with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Houston nonprofit, and funded by the New York-based MacArthur Foundation, [Kelvin L. Banks, director of Harris County Pretrial Services] said.

The following week, county officials will start to recommend varying supervision levels based on the risk assessment, such as requiring people with a history of not showing up for court to check in more frequently than those who regularly appear as needed.

The county has added 13 new employees in recent months to help keep up with the new demand, Banks said.

Whether the county’s approach is constitutional depends on how it’s implemented, Rosenthal noted in the two-page order Friday. She said the county had a “consistent custom and practice” to require cash bail.

Rosenthal praised the county’s new rules, however, for instructing judges who set bail that they should ensure that “liberty is the norm, and detention prior to the trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception,” as the U.S. Supreme Court instructed in a decision 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, the fight goes on. The best thing that can happen here is that this new system is implemented well and that it meets the requirements of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. Because if that does happen, then there’s no need to continue the appeal, right? Let’s hope so.

Pretrial services

Interesting story about one of the many ways the county’s budget shortfall is manifesting itself.

With the blessing of the county attorney’s office, Harris County Pretrial Services has stopped supervising inmates let out of jail on bail, forcing bail bondsmen to more closely monitor their clients and sending judges scrambling to find someone to keep an eye on those awaiting trial.

The change, which began in mid-October, has judges trying to find someone to oversee drug testing, as well as ensure, for example, that DUI defendants have ignition interlocks installed in their automobiles, that drug offenders seek treatment, offenders observe curfews or that the mentally ill get court-ordered services.

Harris County Pretrial Services continues to supervise people out on personal bonds, granted to those unlikely to flee or offend again in exchange for a pledge to show up for court.

However, in the weeks since Pretrial Services stopped checking on defendants freed through bail bonds, the county’s probation department and the bondsmen themselves have taken over some of the monitoring while judges try to find a long-term solution.


Judges had for years been giving Pretrial Services more and more accused felons to monitor. Fifteen years ago, Pretrial Services supervised only 239 felony defendants released on bail, compared with 1,461 released on personal bonds.

By last year, Pretrial was monitoring 2,989 accused felons who purchased their pretrial release through bail bondsmen and only 620 out on personal bond.

More than a fifth of Pretrial Services’ $7.4 million annual budget is spent monitoring clients of bail bondsmen, according to a county report.

Budget concerns, in part, led to Pretrial Services’ change of heart.

Like other county departments, the agency had been under a hiring freeze for the last year and has had essentially the same staffing for at least 15 years but continued to take on bail bond defendants “very, very reluctantly,” state District Judge Mike Anderson said.

Last month, the county’s budget office asked all county departments to prepare for 10 percent budget cuts in the coming year.

The large increase in Pretrial Services’ monitoring caseload began right after the Republican sweep of the Harris County judiciary in 1994. One of the themes of their coordinated campaign that year was attacking the incumbent Democratic judges for releasing too many inmates on personal bonds. The result has been the overcrowded jails that cost the county millions every year, which the Republican judges that helped cause the problem vowed to help clean up in their ads this year. I’m still waiting to see any significant progress on that front.

One more thing:

While defendants released on personal bond failed to show for court appearances 5.6 percent of the time last year, those bailed out by bondsmen failed to appear only 2.9 percent of the time, according to Pretrial Services’ most recent annual report.

I note that paragraph because there was a recent article in the Statesman about the use of personal bonds, in particular one judge’s much more frequent use of them than others’, and it gave a number for Travis County:

Of all the defendants released on personal bond by Travis County judges in financial year 2009 — including those that Pretrial Services recommended — 19 percent failed to show up for court, and 8 percent were arrested for another crime.

Unfortunately, it didn’t say what percentage of defendants released on bail did not show up for their court dates. Regardless, it seems clear that Harris County could easily be a lot more aggressive in the use of personal bonds with relatively little associated risk, and in doing so would likely save a fair amount of money. This would be a metric to watch if you want to test the veracity of those Republican judges’ campaign ads.