For three years, criminal justice reform advocates have been trying to persuade Harris County to change its cash bail system, Harris County has now officially reached an agreement to do so, pending a vote by county commissioners on August 1. Many activists believe this is an important moment in criminal justice reform that will spread to other parts of the state, and hopefully to other places in the country.
Gabrielle Banks reports on federal courts for The Houston Chronicle. The conversation around unlawful bail has been happening for a while, and in 2017 U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s ruled that Harris County’s bail practices violated equal protection and due process rights under the U.S. Constitution. Banks says that bail creates an imbalance among people in the jail system, because low-income people are forced to remain in jail, while those who can afford it are released.
“The way that it’s being done in Harris County violated the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection,” Banks says. “Two people with the exact same criminal background, charged with the exact same crime would have completely different outcomes if they had money in their pocket or not.”
Banks says that Harris County trial judges had appealed Rosenthal’s 2017 ruling, but that after the 2018 election resulted in the defeat of 15 Republican judges in the county, their Democratic successors dropped the appeal. They supported Rosenthal’s ruling against cash bail, and encouraged the county to negotiate a deal to change the bail system.
“It means that about 85% of people arrested on minor offenses can await trial at home they can resume their jobs, they can go back to their families,” Banks says. “They can make car payments and child support payments just as somebody with money to pay would.”
The 2017 ruling also ordered the county to provide more ways to remind people to come to court, including text message reminders and open court hours that allow someone to come in at a different time if they can’t make it to their assigned court time.
On August 1, Harris County commissioners will vote to implement the ruling. In three weeks, a fairness hearing. The Country will operate under a consent decree for the next seven years. After this period, the absence of cash bail will become the new policy for Harris County. Banks says this is a small victory, but the fight to end the bail system isn’t over, and the group that filed the lawsuit that led to this ruling wants the policy to spread to other places.
“This is one of the largest urban areas in the country to have a major reform to its bail system, there has been Washington D.C.… another place where there have been drastic changes to bail,” Banks says. “Other places are already following this example.”
Written by Marina Marquez.