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Judge says Houston-area bail system unfair to poor offenders

HOUSTON (AP) — A judge rebuked Houston-area authorities for imposing a bail system that’s unfair to people arrested for lesser offenses who are detained for long periods because they’re unable to pay for their release.

The ruling Friday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal was part of a lawsuit from a single mother who was held for two days on a charge of driving without a license because she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail.

Among other findings, Rosenthal determined Harris County’s bail policy violates the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

“Harris County’s policy is to detain indigent misdemeanor defendants before trial, violating equal protection rights against wealth-based discrimination and violating due process protections against pretrial detention without proper procedures or an opportunity to be heard,” she wrote in a 193-page ruling.

District Attorney Kim Ogg, elected last year after promising to reform the bail system, said in a statement that the decision is a “watershed moment in Harris County criminal-justice history.”

She said low-level offenders “have faced detention, sometimes for months, in maximum-security facilities, such as the Harris County Jail, when in some instances their offenses don’t even warrant jail time upon conviction.”

Rosenthal ordered the county to soon begin releasing indigent inmates without posting cash bail while they await trial on misdemeanor offenses.

A broader push is underway for bail-reform measures across Texas.

The Texas Judicial Council found late last year that about a quarter of the 41,000 inmates awaiting trial at the time in Texas posed little threat to the public. The council said those people were incarcerated because they couldn’t afford to post bail or in some cases were unfairly identified as flight risks.

A study by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards found that the percentage of inmates waiting for trial 25 years ago was 32 percent. Now it’s 75 percent.

In Harris County, more than 50 percent of misdemeanor defendants are detained until the conclusion of their case, many of them due to their inability to post bail, according to a July study by the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The study also found that misdemeanor defendants who remained jailed before trial were 25 percent more likely to plead guilty. County data shows that of the 20 percent of pretrial defendants charged with low-level, non-violent crimes like drug possession and theft, 51 percent are African-American and 21 percent are Hispanic.

Among the initiatives Harris County is working to implement is a new pretrial risk assessment tool judges will use in determining bail decisions. An algorithm helps identify if a person is at risk of committing a new crime or failing to return to court if released on bail. The system is intended to ensure low-risk defendants are diverted from the system as early as possible.

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