Changes may be coming to how Harris County’s bail system handles misdemeanor criminal charges.
District Attorney Kim Ogg spoke about the matter Tuesday, and Wednesday, Houston police Chief Art Acevedo opened up about the issue.
A settlement to a federal lawsuit that declared the county’s bail system unconstitutional could be approved by a judge as early as this month.
A fairness hearing is scheduled for Oct. 28 in federal court.
Bail system declared unconstitutional
Harris County Commissioner’s Court approved a proposed Consent Decree in July by a vote of 3-2. The decree is a settlement to a federal lawsuit that alleged Harris County discriminated against defendants of low income. The system kept people accused of low level, often nonviolent offenses in jail because they could not pay a bond. On the contrary, those with money to make bond were released.
Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled in April 2017 that the county’s bail system violated due process and equal protection.
Rosenthal’s decision challenged the county’s yearslong system of holding indigent low-level offenders.
How does the proposed Consent Decree work?
Under the proposed Consent Decree, someone arrested for a low-level, nonviolent misdemeanor would be issued a general order bond, or a personal recognizance bond.
They would then be given a court date and released.
Supporters say there’s evidence to back up the claim they’ll show up for court.
“What this settlement does is remedies that situation, which resulted in the mass pretrial detention of people charged only misdemeanor offenses and insures that if somebody is kept in jail prior to trial, that it’s only on very limited circumstances,” said Elizabeth Rossi, senior attorney, Civil Rights Corps, which represented the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.
Under the current proposal, there are provisions for more violent offenses: such as domestic violence and DUI cases, as well as offenders on bond who get hit with a new charge. In total, there are six categories for which being granted a PR bond would first be reviewed by a judge.
“That judge will have the authority to consider a wide range of conditions of release — monetary or nonmonetary — and that arrestee will be given a lawyer who will represent him or her at that hearing and the lawyer will be able to talk with an investigator and a social worker and make the best argument that’s available for why that person can go home on the least restrictive conditions that will meet the government’s interests,” Rossi said.
The proposal also allows a defendant to reset a court hearing up to two times, an ability critics warn will delay the legal process and lead to more money being spent.
The proposed Consent Decree is estimated to cost $97 million.
Critics: proposal is a potential risk to public safety
Critics of the proposal, as it stands, say it goes too far and more provisions need to be added before Rosenthal’s approval.
Primarily, say those in opposition, the Consent Decree does not protect the public from people who are high risk.
“The new proposed settlement fails to protect the average person and police officer from repeat offenders and for people who simply refuse to show up in court,” said Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg.
Acevedo echoed similar concerns Wednesday, though he stressed that he supports bail reform for those accused of low-level offenses.
“We have a lot of low level misdemeanors,” Acevedo said. “Those are not the people you worry about.”
Acevedo worries the proposal could lead to repeat offenders getting out of jail and committing more crimes. Also, he’s concerned some will not show up to court at all.
“I think we all just need to continue to pay close attention to where we’re at but really pay attention to where some advocates are trying to go, and that’s creating a system where there’s no cash bond for anybody, including violent offenders.”
What happens next?
The proposed Consent Decree still needs to be approved by Rosenthal in federal court. A Fairness Hearing is scheduled Oct. 28. It will allow community leaders on both sides of this debate to weigh in on its pros and cons, leading to a final approval.