For more than a year, Harris County has been caught in a legal drama over how it jails inmates who cannot afford to pay bail.
The U.S. Supreme Court dealt the most recent blow to Harris County’s controversial bail system on Wednesday, refusing to halt a federal appeals court ruling from earlier this week.
The federal ruling greenlighted the release of misdemeanor inmates held in the Harris County Jail who couldn’t afford to post cash bonds. Sheriff Ed Gonzalez prepared for the release of as many as 177 people starting Wednesday morning.
The case began when single mother Maranda O’Donnell was arrested and held for two days on $2,500 bail for driving without a valid license. Civil rights groups Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps, as well as Houston law firm Susman Godfrey, filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of ODonnell.
Houston Chronicle reporter Gabrielle Banks says civil rights groups were looking for a big county like Harris to establish a case against unfair jailing of poorer citizens for low-level offenses.
“The concept is that pre-trial, you’re not guilty,” Banks says. “There are people who have the money or borrow the money and they walk out the door. They go on with their lives. They retain their jobs. They continue to make payments on their cars, their child support. Then, there are people who don’t have the money or the resources. It really does affect the rest of their lives to spend two, three or four days a month in the jail because they can’t get out.”
Harris County still has the option to ask another justice or the full Supreme Court to reconsider Justice Clarence Thomas’ ruling.
“This was kind of the equivalent of a death penalty stay,” Banks says of the Supreme Court’s recent refusal. “[Harris County] asked for a stay of the order and [Justice Thomas] just batted it down. They can go right back to another justice with this or they can go to the whole panel of justices and try again. It’s unlikely that they will, but they could.”
Written by Rachel Rascoe.