Harris County is negotiating a settlement with plaintiffs in a class action lawsuit that could lead to dramatic changes in the county’s bail system.
Plaintiffs argue that so-called cash bail unconstitutionally discriminates against those who are poor. They say that those with financial means can afford to pay their way out of misdemeanor charges, while those without money end up in jail.
The settlement isn’t final, and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have spoken out against it.
Gabrielle Banks covers federal courts for The Houston Chronicle, and says Ogg’s concern is that a large amount of people charged with misdemeanors will automatically be released from jail.
“Basically, 85% of the people arrested on misdemeanors will be provided automatic release on a general bond,” Banks says. “She said she thinks that’s not fair to the general public; it’s a public safety concern.”
Paxton expressed similar concerns, saying it limits judges’ ability to decide punishment on a case-by-case basis, and leaves too much flexibility for when defendants must appear in court.
Ogg and Paxton aren’t parties in the lawsuit.
Ogg is a Democrat who ran on the promise of changing the bail system. But her approach changed recently.
“When it came to a settlement, and there was an opportunity for people to file objections, she filed an objection, pretty vocally, objecting to things that the plaintiffs said she could have raised in a series of meetings over many months,” Banks says.
She says most of the plaintiffs don’t know they’re involved in the lawsuit; they’re mostly people who’ve been arrested in Harris County on misdemeanor charges. Those who do plan to speak during a “fairness hearing” next week. It’s an opportunity for the parties involved to express concerns about the proposed settlement. But Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal has also opened it up to “non-official parties,” Banks says. Ogg plans to attend.
“Those people are gonna have 10 minutes each to speak; a lot of them have signed up, including Kim Ogg and a representative of the AG’s office,” Banks says. “They will not be cross-examined.”
Banks says Rosenthal will likely approve the settlement, which means changes to the bail system can continue. But she might tweak some details depending on what she learns in the hearing.
“If minor adjustments need to be made or there’s some concern they raise that she had not considered, I’m sure that she’ll consider it. She’s very deliberative and very cautious,” Banks says.
Written by Caroline Covington.