Harris County has begun releasing inmates who were held on misdemeanor charges but unable to post bail after a federal judge’s order was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court last week.
On June 7, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas denied Harris County’s application to stay a preliminary injunction issued by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal. The injunction, issued in April, required the release of inmates awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges who could not pay bail.
The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had previously granted an appeal to halt the injunction in May.
First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said the attorney’s office has been working with the sheriff, the Office of Pre-Trial Services and the Office of Court Management to comply with the order, and that as of Wednesday about 650 individuals had been released from jail.
“Under the court order all misdemeanor defendants in the Harris County jail who are not otherwise subject to a formal hold, such as a federal immigration detainer or an outstanding warrant—and who have signed an affidavit claiming they do not have the ability to post a secured bond—must be released within 24 hours of arrest on an unsecured promise to return to court,” Soard said.
The latest development in the case—which began in September 2016 with a lawsuit alleging the county unfairly jails those who cannot afford to pay cash bail—was a topic of discussion at Tuesday’s Harris County Commissioners Court meeting. Commissioners raised concerns about the release of inmates based on statements of financial hardship.
“I’ve stated publicly that someone shouldn’t be in jail because they can’t afford bail,” Harris County Judge Ed Emmett said. “But there has to be some assessment of risk at some point in this process. I don’t think anybody wants somebody to keep driving drunk time after time until they kill some family somewhere. That’s an issue we have to come to grips with.”
Steve Radack, Harris County Precinct 3 Commissioner, said he felt the requirement made it too easy for a person charged with a misdemeanor to avoid consequences.
“This is a slap at every single Harris County criminal court judge,” Radack said. “Basically, it doesn’t matter how bad you are as long as you are charged with a misdemeanor and you say you can’t afford bail, you’re getting out regardless of how much violence you might cause.”
Radack said the issue should be taken up at the state level.
Soard said the county plans to implement a new risk-assessment tool July 1 that could further reduce the number of individuals held on misdemeanor charges who are deemed to be a low risk to the community.
“We anticipate that this system will increase the number of persons released without having to post a secured bond and decrease the number of persons in jail awaiting trial,” Soard said.