Program to reform Harris County bail system faces delays

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On Tuesday Harris County commissioners and Judge Ed Emmett discussed the impact of a federal mandate requiring the release of misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial who are unable to post bail on the county’s own plans to reform its bail bond system.

An April ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal required the release of qualifying defendants who signed an affidavit on June 6 declaring their inability to post bail.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle said Harris County’s Public Safety Assessment—a data-based tool intended to help judges decide whether to release pretrial misdemeanor defendants—scheduled to go into effect at the beginning of July has been delayed.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Cagle said he was concerned about public safety when defendants are released without assessment. Emmett said an individual released without paying bail is more likely to commit another crime.

“Yeah, you can reoffend if you’re out on bail,” Emmett said, “but the numbers were skewed fairly heavily. If you’re out without paying anything…those individuals seem to reoffend more often than those who are out on bond.”

A total of 21 percent of the individuals released under Judge Rosenthal’s order have failed to appear for trial, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard. The failure rate for defendants who paid bail was only 3.8 percent, Soard said.

Also known as the Arnold tool, the PSA uses nine factors to measure the pretrial risk level of defendants unable to pay bail, focusing on whether the individual is a threat to the public whether he or she is likely to show up for trial, according to a news release by the Arnold Foundation, which developed the tool. The assessment gives the individual a score ranging from one to six, with higher numbers indicating increased risk.

Although the presiding judge would have the final say in whether to release a defendant, the news release states the assessment would help Harris County reduce the number of misdemeanor offenders in jail and free up funds currently going toward their incarceration.

Judge Emmett said the big question is whether the PSA will operate in conjunction with Judge Rosenthal’s order.

“The question is under Judge Rosenthal’s ruling; it doesn’t matter,” Judge Emmett said. “The assessment tool has no effect because her ruling says all you have to do is sign an affidavit that says ‘I can’t afford bail,’ and you’re out.”

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