Harris County’s bail lawsuit spreads

The next chapter in Harris County’s saga over bail practices is playing out in federal court, and officials involved in pretrial processes throughout Texas are holding their breath.

The state’s most populous county is involved in a complicated fight over how its bail procedures impact poor misdemeanor defendants awaiting trial. A federal lawsuit questions the constitutionality of the county’s pretrial system, where arrestees who can’t afford their bail bonds regularly sit in jail – often until their cases are resolved days or weeks later – while similar defendants who have cash are released.

Last year, inmates filed suit against Harris County, saying they were wrongfully detained in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bail bonds. The lawsuit covers all indigent defendants arrested on misdemeanors, like driving with an invalid license or shoplifting. In April, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal issued a groundbreaking ruling, calling Harris County’s bail practices unconstitutional and ordering the release of almost all misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay the bond amount.

The county, which has implemented many of its own reforms since the suit’s filing, appealed the injunction at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Both sides of the lawsuit recognize the legal outcome in Harris County could have nationwide repercussions for the American bail system. In Texas, counties with wide variations of pretrial practices are measuring their programs against the federal injunction.

“At a minimum, the litigation in Harris County is going to change the dialogue, if not the policy, of all other Texas counties on [personal] bonds,” said Michael Young, Bexar County’s chief public defender. Jail population reports show that almost 75 percent of people in Texas jails have not been convicted.