The final hearing of Harris County’s bail bond settlement—a landmark decision that allows most misdemeanor defendants to be released on personal bonds—has been delayed, and local groups are fighting against its approval.
The settlement, which was approved by Harris County commissioners July 30, makes permanent policy changes that would allow automatic, no-cash bonds to about 85% of misdemeanor defendants, as well as require the county to implement initiatives aimed at improving court appearance rates and legal representation at bail hearings.
The bail reform was set in motion following a lawsuit against the Harris County in 2016 by various plaintiffs and a federal ruling in 2017 by Judge Lee Rosenthal, chief district judge of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas, who declared the county’s bail system unconstitutional.
The settlement still needs to go back to Rosenthal for final approval, which was pushed from Aug. 21 to Sept. 19.
Nine different officials and groups, including Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, have filed amicus briefs or written oppositions urging Rosenthal to deny the county’s proposed settlement, according to an Aug. 23 news release from The Professional Bondsmen of Texas, a bail bond industry association.
The parties cite public safety concerns, violations of state law and financial burden on taxpayers as reasons to reject the settlement, according to their amicus briefs.
Several parties also expressed concern over the application of personal bonds in an “unreasonable manner.”
In her amicus brief, Ogg included instances of county judiciary using their discretion to grant personal bonds for defendants not outlined in the settlement—including domestic violence perpetrators and those with second offenses for driving while intoxicated. Crime Stoppers, an organization in Houston that helps solve and prevent crimes, cited Ogg’s concerns in its letter of opposition.
“If passed, Crime Stoppers believes the proposed settlement agreement will invite further crime in Harris County and its surrounding communities,” Andy Kahan, director of Victim Services and Advocacy for Crime Stoppers, wrote in the letter. “Public safety must be taken into consideration and the rights of the victims of crime.”
The other groups that penned concerns include the following: Harris County Deputies’ Organization Fraternal Order of Police Lodge No. 39, Equal Justice Now, Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council and The Harris County Bondsmen Association.
Individuals including Pasadena Police Chief Josh Bruegger, Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack also submitted statements or filed amicus briefs.
"I think there’s a good chance [Rosenthal] will reject the settlement," Cagle said.
Two other groups—Houston Area Police Chief's Association and the Texas School District Police Chief’s Association—filed a motion seeking more time to file their objections to the proposed settlement, according to the news release. The deadline to file objections was set for Aug. 22, and the two groups are pressing for Sept. 2.
Above and beyond
Ogg originally supported the plaintiff’s position in 2016, calling for “substantial and immediate reform to the bail system to ensure equal protection of all defendants without regard to their social status or financial inability to pay,” according to her amicus brief.
Following the federal ruling in 2017, the county began implementing 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 an individualized determination of ability to pay. Further, all misdemeanor arrestees must be released on a personal bond—or unsecured bond—as soon as practical after arrest, with a few exceptions.
“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.”
In addition to continuing Local Rule 9's implementation, the settlement could allow misdemeanor defendants to reschedule their cases an infinite number of times within the discretion of the judge, Ogg stated in her amicus brief.
The settlement also bans misdemeanor arrestees from being required to appear in court less than 72 hours after being released from jail, “to ensure that people released from custody after arrest have an adequate opportunity to address the disruption to their lives caused by the arrest.”
Ogg said this window fails to protect victims of crime.
“Very dangerous behavior can happen in the immediate aftermath of an arrest for domestic violence, stalking or any other type of victim-centric crime,” she wrote in her amicus brief.
Cagle, who opposed the settlement agreement at the July 30 commissioners court meeting, also said he believes the settlement is unnecessary.
"Local Rules 9 solves everything [that] the plaintiffs were complaining about in the original suit," he said.
Cost and victim concerns
Cagle also expressed concerns over victims not being accounted for, as well as the settlement cost and granting power to a federal judge to shape policy in Harris County.
"It’s not very fair to victims," he said. "[There is nothing] there to address the civil rights of victims."
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.
“Our county spends millions of dollars in the realm of criminal justice, and we voted last session to add potentially another $97 million to look out for those who are arrested for committing crimes in our society,” Cagle said at the subsequent Aug. 13 meeting. “But there is a great deficit in these reforms in that we have not been looking out for the only unwilling participant in the criminal justice system, … the victims.”
Ogg could not be reached for comment Aug. 23.
Additional reporting by Shawn Arrajj