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County’s new bail system not quite ready

Real soon now.

Harris County’s long-trumpeted new system for setting bail for people awaiting trial will be up and running by the end of July, nearly a month later than the July 1 effective date the county had promised a federal judge, officials said Monday.

The new approach won a green light late Friday from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who issued an order saying the new system did not violate an April ruling that threw out the previous system as unconstitutional.

But Rosenthal warned in a blunt 200-word footnote that the new rules “do not change much,” indicating county judges must stop requiring cash bail for low-level, misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford it.

The new rules will be based on a risk-assessment tool designed to help the county’s judges determine a defendant’s likelihood of appearing in court and staying out of trouble. The system imposes a fee schedule ranging from $500 to $5,000 for misdemeanors and recommends upfront payment from most people.

“Like the old schedule … secured money bail is the standard recommendation for most categories of misdemeanor arrestees,” the judge wrote. “The approved changes are hardly different.”

A lead attorney for the people suing over the bail system said Rosenthal’s order showed frustration with the county.

“The interesting thing is that she notes the county has not done what it said it was going to do,” said Neal Manne, a partner at Susman Godfrey, a law firm providing its services at no charge.

[…]

Next week, staffers will get training on how to use the public safety assessment, a standardized formula developed in partnership with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, a Houston nonprofit, and funded by the New York-based MacArthur Foundation, [Kelvin L. Banks, director of Harris County Pretrial Services] said.

The following week, county officials will start to recommend varying supervision levels based on the risk assessment, such as requiring people with a history of not showing up for court to check in more frequently than those who regularly appear as needed.

The county has added 13 new employees in recent months to help keep up with the new demand, Banks said.

Whether the county’s approach is constitutional depends on how it’s implemented, Rosenthal noted in the two-page order Friday. She said the county had a “consistent custom and practice” to require cash bail.

Rosenthal praised the county’s new rules, however, for instructing judges who set bail that they should ensure that “liberty is the norm, and detention prior to the trial or without trial is the carefully limited exception,” as the U.S. Supreme Court instructed in a decision 30 years ago.

Meanwhile, the fight goes on. The best thing that can happen here is that this new system is implemented well and that it meets the requirements of Judge Rosenthal’s ruling. Because if that does happen, then there’s no need to continue the appeal, right? Let’s hope so.

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