Harris County officials, groups debate bail bond settlement

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Harris County officials, groups debate bail bond settlement
Harris County officials made changes to the bail bond system in July they believe could curb disenfranchisement of low-income individuals. However, some county officials and organizations are challenging the validity of the new system.

Harris County commissioners settled an ongoing lawsuit July 30 the county had been fighting since 2016 and adopted policy reforms that could set a precedent for future bail cases. Commissioners were divided on the reform, passing it on a 3-2 vote.

Under new policies, the vast majority of individuals arrested for misdemeanor crimes would be eligible to be released on automatic, no-cash pretrial bonds based on an evaluated risk of the defendant’s risk to society or of skipping court dates. Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who represents the Atascocita area, lauded the reform as a historic move in the justice system.

“The best way to keep our communities safe is having a multi-tiered approach that allows our district attorney and law enforcement officers to focus on the most dangerous while enhancing a criminal justice system that promotes fairness for all,” he said in an Aug. 1 news release.

However, nine different Harris County groups and officials filed amicus briefs or written oppositions against the proposed settlement, including Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and District Attorney Kim Ogg, according to an Aug. 23 news release from the Professional Bondsmen of Texas, a bail bond industry association.

They cited public safety concerns, violations of state law and financial burden on taxpayers as reasons to reject the settlement, according to their amicus briefs. A hearing to determine final ruling of the settlement is set for Sept. 19.

Mario Garza, president of the Harris County Professional Bondsmen Association, a bail bond association that also submitted an amicus brief, said he believes the cash bail bond system helps encourage defendants to attend court.

“When we bond somebody out, a family member comes to sign for them—a cosigner, a wife, a relative, a mom, a dad—and they say, ‘If my son or daughter doesn’t go to court, I’m going to be responsible,’” he said. “The likeliness of them returning is a lot higher than if they sign a piece of paper.”

Terms of settlement

Jennifer Chiotti, criminal justice professor at Lone Star College-Kingwood, said she believes the previous cash bail system systematically disenfranchised low-income and minority groups.

“It’s a longstanding notion that the rich get richer and the poor get prison,” Chiotti said. “If you have the financial resources, the criminal justice system is not as big of a burden.”

In April 2017, Lee Rosenthal, the chief district judge of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas, declared Harris County’s bail bond system unconstitutional, finding the practice of jailing people for not being able to afford bail violates guarantees of due process.

The county appealed the ruling and fought the lawsuit, but after a slate of Democrats were elected to judge and commissioner seats last November, the county began working with the plaintiffs on a settlement. In February, the county changed its bail bond policies, resulting in about 85% of those arrested on misdemeanors getting released pretrial on unsecured personal bonds.

Since February, the number of people being held in the Harris County jail pretrial for misdemeanors has dropped. An average of 465 people were held for pretrial misdemeanors over the first six months of 2016, while that number dropped to 278 over the first six months of 2019, according to Texas Commission on Jail Standards data.

The no-cash bail would not be available for people arrested for certain crimes, including domestic violence or a second arrest for driving while intoxicated. People detained for those reasons must attend a hearing before a judicial officer, who will determine the bond.

Following the federal ruling in 2017, the county already began implementing similar changes to its bail practices, known as Local Rule 9. Among the rule’s requirements, secured money bail must not be required as a condition of pretrial release prior to determining a person’s ability to pay, and all misdemeanor arrestees must be released on a personal bond as soon as practical after arrest, with a few exceptions.

Ogg, who originally supported the plaintiff’s position in 2016, also opposed the settlement in a brief issued Aug. 22.

“The district attorney has no objection to a settlement approved by this court requiring and monitoring the continued enforcement of that rule,” Ogg wrote in her amicus brief. “The proposed settlement seeks relief far beyond the scope of the original controversy, however.”

Public safety concerns

Cagle—who voted against the change and filed an amicus brief—said he has concerns over victims not being accounted for as well as the settlement cost. The settlement is projected to cost up to $97 million and includes a study to assess why people miss court dates and initiatives to improve court appearance rates, such as a text message system to remind defendants of their court date.

“It’s not very fair to victims,” he said. “[There is nothing] there to address the civil rights of victims.”

In the Kingwood, Humble and Atascocita area, the most frequent crime in the last six months—from Feb. 15 to Aug. 14—was breaking and entering with 241 incidents, followed by theft from vehicle at 213 incidents, according to data from the Crime Reports website, which compiles data from Harris County law enforcement agencies. Per the reform, breaking and entering would not qualify for no-cash bond, while burglarizing a vehicle would qualify.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said there is no evidence the cash bail system increases public safety, citing a University of Pennsylvania study that found detaining individuals pretrial makes them more likely to commit crimes later on.

The study analyzed 380,689 misdemeanor cases filed in Harris County from 2008-13. Researchers concluded the roughly 40,000 people who were assigned cash bail of $500 or less would have been involved with 1,600 fewer felonies and 2,400 fewer misdemeanors in the 18 months post-trial if they had been released instead of detained.

“[The reform’s] intent is not to release dangerous offenders but to keep individuals out of the system and provide them with the already existing services to prevent them from returning to the system,” Chiotti said.


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