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Our bail policies are unjust, costly, and stupid

Any questions about how I really feel?

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“The numbers clearly tell the story: More than three-fourths of the people in Harris County Jail haven’t been convicted of crime, and the majority of them are sitting in jail simply because they can’t afford to get out – not because they’re a threat to public safety,” said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. “This means the indigent are more likely to be kept in jail pretrial, lose their jobs, affect their family lives, and receive harsher sentences solely because of their income status.”

Harris County locks up more people pretrial than most other large counties utilizing a standardized schedule that sets bond amounts for specific crimes. Magistrates makes bond decisions based almost entirely on charges filed and prior convictions in hearings via video linkup at which few questions are asked and defendants have no attorneys – a process the county’s public defender has described as potentially illegal in an upcoming law journal article.

The magistrate’s bond decisions are almost never altered by the county’s elected district court judges, who reduced bonds in less than 1 percent of cases, court bond data from 2014-15 shows.

Judges can, if they choose, grant personal bonds to defendants in which bail fees are waived in exchange for a promise to appear. But in 2014, they granted personal bonds to about 1 percent of felony offenders and only 9 percent of misdemeanor offenders, county statistics show.

Those rates are below those in other urban Texas counties, including Bexar and Travis, according to a related 2015 report. Several district court judges have told magistrates never to issue personal bonds for anyone assigned to their courts, while others specify such bonds be granted only to students, a former judge and other county officials told the Chronicle.

Once jailed, no mechanism exists to automatically alert elected judges even when an inmate falls severely ill or already has served more time pretrial than the punishment for the alleged crime, Harris County judges said.

In August 2009, after the U.S. Department of Justice found civil rights abuses at the Harris County Jail, a consulting firm hired by the county urged judges to increase the use of personal bonds to reduce crowding in the jail complex, then bursting with more than 11,000 inmates. More than six years later, jail population has decreased, but the proportion of inmates awaiting trial has grown, from 54 percent in August 2009 to 76 percent in November 2015.

Some judges defended their tough bond schedule, explaining that many defendants are repeat offenders or require high bail to guarantee court appearances and protect the public. But in a $2 million proposal the county is preparing to submit to the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation, judges and attorneys alike have called for reforms. In interviews, many agreed the pretrial system is broken and the jail is regularly clogged with too many mentally ill and low-risk offenders arrested for crimes like smoking pot and trespassing.

Ultimately, the system most punishes the poorest and sickest defendants, defense attorneys and some legislators say.

Fifty-five inmates died in the jail while awaiting adjudication since 2009. Eight were too ill to appear at initial bail hearings.

Emphasis mine. This is outrageous and infuriating. People who have not been convicted of a crime are in jail without any consideration of their risk to the community, their health, or the effect their incarceration may have on their families. Some of them wind up spending more time in jail waiting for their case to be resolved than they ever would have if they had been convicted of the crime for which they were arrested. Many of them wind up pleading guilty to a crime they may never have been convicted of just to get out of jail. Does any of this sound like justice? Does any of it sound like something you would tolerate if it happened to you or someone you knew? Does any of it sound like a viable and cost-effective way to promote public safety? This isn’t something we have to do. It’s not something we are being forced to do by state or federal mandate. It’s something we are choosing to do, and by “we” I mean the judges who set these dumb bail amounts and the people who vote for them. We chose this, and we can choose differently. It’s up to us.

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5 Comments

  1. Steve Houston says:

    How many of the judges complaining deviate from those established bonding schedules and by how much? It sounds like they are trying to play both sides against the middle when they have ample power to do as they please.

    As far as the rest of it, you’re glorifying the city for pushing more people directly over to the county, including municipal prisoners, in another article. The city still has to pay the county for their incarceration and now there is an incentive for someone (the county) to keep them longer. Wouldn’t changing policies on arresting the prisoners in the first place have the biggest impact?

  2. C.L. says:

    If you don’t want to sit in jail without bond being…offered, don’t do the crime. Wasn’t that the gist of the Baretta television show ?

  3. Jason says:

    Everyone arrested is guilty, right?

  4. Patrick says:

    Bemused by the citation of the TV show “Baretta” given the legal history of the show’s star…and the fact that it’s a TV show.

  5. Steve Houston says:

    Jason, a lot of people use the adage “Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” when applying a standard of guilt to those arrested. For better or worse, very few who actually deal with inmates believe most of them are truly innocent, from the cop that catches them in the act, the defense attorney they confess to, the juries that find their versions of events often silly, or the prison guards that hear them brag about their misdeeds. Is wholesale bail reform the answer to some of the troubles coming from the system? Maybe or maybe not, I favor more reasonable standards for bail applying to first time customers myself, but few credible people in power are spending much time pondering reinventing the entire wheel as needs to happen.