Harris County Commissioners Court voted 4-1 on Tuesday to appeal an April 28 injunction by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal that requires the release of inmates who cannot pay bail and are awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges.
The ruling came as the result of a lawsuit filed in September 2016 alleging the county unfairly jails those who cannot afford to pay cash bail. The suit alleges that a “wealth-based pretrial detention system” violates the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution.
The suit was filed by three individuals who were charged with misdemeanors in 2016 and held in Harris County jail because they could not pay bail.
The individuals filed the suit “on behalf of themselves and all others similarly situated,” according to court documents.
Several members of Houston-area clergy were among those who spoke at the meeting Tuesday morning, urging commissioners to settle the lawsuit.
“Three quarters of inmates have not been tried for or convicted of any crime except the crime of being too poor to pay their bail,” said Rabbi Samuel Karff. “We urge you to seek immediate settlement of lawsuit pertaining to this case rather than to use county resources to continue what is likely to be expensive and futile appeal process.”
Darrell Jordan, Harris County criminal court judge, who spoke during a public comment portion of the meeting, said he believes the ability to pay a cash bond does not make a person better suited to be released from jail while they await a trial.
“Money does not make people safe,” Jordan said.
County Attorney Vince Ryan told the court that implementing Judge Rosenthal’s order by May 15 as required would prove challenging and said the system proposed by the judge was “arguably not legal” because it would effectively give judicial authority to the sheriff.
According to the injunction, about 50,000 people are arrested on misdemeanor charges in Harris County each year.
Judge Rosenthal states in the injunction that 40 percent of people arrested in Harris County under misdemeanor charges are detained until case disposition.
Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who voted against the appeal, said although he felt it was reasonable to ask for additional time, he was in favor of settling the lawsuit rather than appealing it and urged the commissioners to comply with the preliminary injunction.