Texas’ most populous county has been something of an epicenter for bail reform, with class-action civil rights suits brought against Harris County. The suits allege that cash bail unconstitutionally discriminates against the poor because they are often held in jail just because they aren’t wealthy enough to pay bail.
But after spending millions fighting these lawsuits, Harris County is doing a dramatic about-face, announcing a new bail system that will allow some 85 percent of defendants to be released on personal recognizance – no cash bail, just a promise to return to court on the trial date.
Gabrielle Banks is a federal courts reporter for the Houston Chronicle who’s been covering the story.
Harris County is suggesting that the move away from cash bail could be part of a settlement in civil rights suits over past bail practices.
“It’s a very dramatic move, a big shift from what the county was looking at just before the election,” Banks says.
Harris County elected a slate of 16 Democratic judges to its misdemeanor courts, and the “blue wave” had an immediate effect on bail policy plans.
Banks says the new bail system ends most cash bail for misdemeanor arrests.
“It would allow them to go home, resume their jobs, make their payments, get their kids to school,” Banks says.
The new policy makes exceptions for domestic violence arrests, repeat DWI arrests and violations of previous bail requirements.
The new policy is controversial in some quarters, because those arrested for a crime return to the streets within hours of their arrest. Banks says that’s what happens now to defendants who have the money to pay cash bail. For poor people, that’s not an option.
“The upshot is people take guilty pleas who aren’t guilty, just to get out,” she says.
In ruling against Harris County in the lawsuit over cash bail, the judge ruled that the system was unconstitutional because penalties were different, depending upon whether a defendant had the money to make bail.
Banks says the end of most cash bail in Harris County could represent a turning point for other jurisdictions in Texas.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.