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Bail practices lawsuit gets going

The first day in court for this lawsuit was Monday.

Neal S. Manne, a managing partner at Susman Godfrey, told Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in his opening statement Monday that ODonnell and hundreds of other poor people charged with minor crimes do not get a fair chance to win pretrial release here if they can’t afford to pay a bondsman.

He lauded the recent bail reforms the county has begun and those it plans to install, but he said none address the basic constitutional questions of equal protection under the law.

“If you have money, you can get out. If you don’t, you can’t,” Manne said. “That’s what we’re here about.”

The opening statements took on a question-and-answer format as Rosenthal peppered the lawyers with dozens of sharp questions and hypothetical arrest scenarios trying to get at the truth of how bail works here.

Melissa Lynn Spinks, who is heading the defense team on behalf of the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the premise that Harris County has a wealth-based bail system is “a woefully simplistic argument.”

“The defense believes there is a category of high-risk defendants that we simply can’t ignore,” she said, explaining that hearing judges weigh several factors in setting bail.

Four other attorneys representing the judges, the sheriff and the county presented a preview of their arguments, interrupted by lively questioning from the judge.

Plaintiffs are seeking an injunction against the county to force immediate changes in the bail process. There’s no monetary award being sought, just changes to the system. It’s not clear to me what the timeline is, so we’ll just have to follow along and see. In the meantime, as we know there have been some changes made that will address some of these issues, but there’s more that needs to be done. Grits for Breakfast quotes an email from UH law professor Sandra Guerra Thompson that begins with a discussion of two bail reform bills that have been filed in the Lege and then moves on to this lawsuit as a case in point.

Ending Pretrial Punishment. If your loved one is arrested tomorrow in Texas, he or she will almost certainly be required to pay money to get out of jail. For most people who cannot pay the entire amount of the bail set, the only viable way to get out of jail is by making a non-refundable payment to a bondsman. This amounts to punishment, a fine, without proof of guilt. As someone who has paid bail money to get a cousin out of jail in Houston, I will tell you that it feels very much like pretrial punishment. The same troubled cousin was later arrested in Austin where judges have implemented a risk-based system, and he was released on a PR bond within a few hours. This use of PR bonds, based on a validated risk assessment, is what the bail bill would implement. The vast majority of people arrested are low-level, low-risk people who should be promptly released on PR bonds upon a finding that they are safe to be released. Rather than pay for a bail bond, they can use their money to pay for an attorney so the county doesn’t have to appoint one at taxpayer expense.

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Meanwhile, back at the ranch . . . Houston officials defend the indefensible. Litigants have challenged the money bail system in Harris County, the state’s largest and deeply intransigent jurisdiction. The trial started today, March 6th. The litigation shake-up, combined with the election of reform-minded officials, has already brought some progress. Remarkably, the District Attorney Kim Ogg, following the lead of the Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, recently filed an amicus brief siding with the plaintiffs who are suing the county’s misdemeanor judges (see attached brief). So far, the county refuses to budge from its stance supporting the use of money bail, even though the system has been shown to be arbitrary, wasteful, cruel, and dangerous. The county’s lawyers went so far as to make the ludicrous statement that some people are in jail because they prefer to be there!

Holding tight to the Bail Schedule. To deflect the criticisms, Harris County officials have agreed to do everything short of getting rid of the bail schedule. Last month, they touted the implementation of the Arnold Foundation risk assessment instrument, which would be important if the judges were actually planning to make decisions based on risk assessments rather than simply following bail schedules. They have no plans to do away with money bail, and that is why the county has been unable to settle the lawsuit.

Here are other “baby steps” that Harris County has made, while desperately clinging to the money bail system. After years of feet-dragging, county officials have finally agreed to provide people with public defenders at bail hearings as part of a pilot project. (I will never understand why a “pilot project” is necessary. By what measure will they evaluate whether it is a good idea to give people access to a fair defense at bail hearings? Keep in mind that prosecutors have participated at these hearings for many years. That’s right—the county has held one-sided hearings with a prosecutor and magistrate, but no one to speak for the jailed person!)

To its credit, the county has started several programs to reduce the number of people in jail: the District Attorney’s policy to“legalize” of small amounts of pot, a “reintegration court” to get minor offenders out of the jail quickly, and very modest efforts to get the seriously mentally ill out of the jail and into treatment facilities. All of these programs are welcome and long-overdue, but they are not bail reform.

And that is what this lawsuit is about, for Harris County. For the state of Texas, that action is in the Legislature, and you should click over to Grits to learn more. I’ll be keeping an eye on the trial.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m a victim. My spn is 02003880. It’s corrupt as hell !

  2. […] THEODIS BUTLER on Bail practices lawsuit gets going […]