Harris County commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday to develop a pilot program that would make public defenders present at bail hearings, a move aimed at reducing what officials say is the unnecessary jailing of thousands of defendants because they can’t afford bail or are unfamiliar with the legal process.
The pilot could lead to Harris County becoming the first county in Texas to make legal representation available at all hearings where bail is set. The majority of individuals are not represented by attorneys at the hearings.
Advocates for criminal justice reform heralded the county’s move, noting that research shows those jailed and unable to bail out are more likely to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit.
They also pointed to cases like that of Sandra Bland, who failed to make bail after a controversial arrest and committed suicide three days later in the Waller County jail, as examples of tragedies that could be prevented.
Roughly 80 percent of the Harris County jail’s population – some 7,000 to 8,000 inmates – are pre-trial detainees.
“In a jurisdiction that large, this is really a sea change about the way they are going to do business,” said Jim Bethke, executive director of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission.
The county public defender’s office is working with the budget office to develop the pilot program. It could make public defenders present at some or all bail hearings. Currently, Bethke said, only Bexar County has a similar program – and that is tailored to offenders with mental-health conditions.
The public defender’s office will present a pilot program to county commissioners on March 14, and it would go into effect, if approved, on July 1. The county is also implementing a new risk assessment tool for hearing officers to better determine whether people can be released prior to trial.
I consider this another positive outcome of the ongoing bail practices lawsuit. The time was finally right for the issue to gain salience and require some kind of solution, even before any intervention from the court. I want to see what the effect of this is on the jail population, because if it doesn’t have a noticeable effect then something is wrong. Think Progress, which offers an overview of the case, has more.