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Bail practices lawsuit update

There was a hearing in court this week, and the judge was skeptical.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal declined Thursday to rule on whether Harris County should be dismissed from a lawsuit intended to force officials to reform a tough bail system in which more than 70 percent of jail inmates are being held pretrial.

Maranda Lynn Odonnell, a single mom jailed for driving without a valid license and held for two days because she couldn’t afford $2,500 bail, has been put forward as the plaintiff in the civil rights lawsuit as a representative of thousands of poor people who suffered undue hardship because of their inability to pay bail in Harris County.

Her claim was consolidated Thursday by Rosenthal with similar complaints by a pregnant woman and a man arrested for shoplifting cosmetics who were both jailed because they could not pay for bail.

But lawyers for Harris County have argued that the county itself – and its elected county commissioners – don’t control decisions made by judges. Under the current system, only about 8 percent of misdemeanor offenders were released without having to pay bail in 2015, according to county statistics.

In court, Rosenthal questioned whether lawyers representing poor former detainees are pursuing the right parties by targeting the county sheriff, county hearing officers and the county itself when it is county court at law judges who act as policymakers and set the bail bond schedule that’s been challenged.

She gave Odonnell’s attorneys a week to decide whether to add judges as additional defendants and hinted that she considered it a “dicey proposition” to hold the sheriff responsible for bail-driven injustices.

See here for the background. I tend to agree that the judges should be included as defendants, as they are the root of the problem. That said, it’s not like the various county officials have no influence here. Thay have always been free – and, I would argue, obliged – to speak up on this and apply pressure to the judges and District Attorneys who have caused the problem. They are complicit, even if they aren’t a fit as defendants.

In the meantime, the Justice Department has gotten involved as well.

The Obama administration has joined the fight against the American bail industry, telling a federal appeals court that bail practices that keep poor defendants locked up because they cannot afford to purchase their freedom are unconstitutional.

“Bail practices that do not account for indigence result in the unnecessary incarceration of numerous individuals who are presumed innocent,” the Justice Department wrote in an amicus brief filed Friday.

The brief marks the first time DOJ has weighed in on the constitutional requirements of bail systems in a federal appeals court.

[…]

Maurice Walker is at the center of the case at issue. The 54-year-old was arrested by the Calhoun Police Department in Georgia in September 2015 for allegedly being a “pedestrian under the influence.” Walker, who has limited income and serious mental health issues, was told he would not be released unless he came up with $160, the fixed amount set by bond for someone charged with being a pedestrian under the influence.

Court was held just once a week in Calhoun, and Walker was arrested on a Thursday before Labor Day when there was no court. He remained in jail for six days, and would have been there longer ― but he was released after lawyers with Equal Justice Under Law and the Southern Center for Human Rights filed a class action lawsuit on his behalf while he was still behind bars.

A lower court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in that case; it is being appealed. There will be a hearing in September on a motion for an injunction against Harris County’s bail practices. Stay tuned.

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4 Comments

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    The Judges set bail. The jail could be emptied tomorrow if the D.A. said she was only going to go after 10% of a bond forfeiture. I have heard that other Counties have done this on a temporary basis to address over crowding and all it took was 4 weeks. It amazes me no one ever listens. So sue Harris County, Sheriff, the Police Officer and whoever else you are mad at because it makes you feel better. Just whatever you do don’t ever attempt to find a solution and for God’s sake don’t talk to the Bail Bondsmen.

  2. Steve Houston says:

    PK, I suspect that should this flawed lawsuit prevail, those wanting a cheap way out will come crawling to the industry to make changes like the ones you have espoused.

  3. […] Steve Houston on Bail practices lawsuit update […]

  4. Terrance Jewett says:

    Or we can start to issue PR Bonds.