Criminal Justice

Texas Judge Tells Woman Given $3,500 Bond for Misdemeanors She's 'Job Security'

County sued for not caring whether defendants can pay high bails.


Jail cell
Tim Pearce, Los Gatos / CC BY

One Harris County Texas Magistrate doubled a woman's bail from $1,000 to $2,000 because she responded to his questions with "Yeah" instead of "yes." Another magistrate told a woman given a $3,500 bond for release over several vehicle violations (including driving without a license) that the fact she was caught up in this system of arrests and fines counted as "job security" for him.

These are cases progressive activist group the Texas Organizing Project gave to the Houston Press to highlight situations where judges are not considering the poverty of defendants and simply don't care whether they are able to pay for bail. The county is being sued for failing to consider whether defendants are able to afford bail in cases where they aren't flight risks. One lawsuit noted:

In Harris County, wealthier arrestees are released from custody almost immediately upon payment of money to the County. Arrestees who are too poor to purchase their release remain in jail because of their poverty. On any given night, over 500 people arrested for misdemeanors languish in the Harris County Jail because of a money bail that they cannot afford. Between 2009 and 2015, 55 human beings died in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial after being unable pay the amount of money demanded by the County for their release.

On behalf of the many other arrestees subjected to Harris County's unlawful and ongoing post-arrest wealth-based detention scheme, Plaintiffs challenge in this action the use of secured money bail to detain only the most impoverished of misdemeanor arrestees. Harris County's wealth-based pretrial detention system violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution. It has no place in modern American law.

The examples of the cruel judges were provided just this week but the class action lawsuit goes back to earlier in the year. It's part of a push by many organizations targeting abusive bail practices in several states and counties that essentially create debtors' prisons.

This isn't the only suit in Texas. Earlier in the month the American Civil Liberties Union announced a class-action lawsuit against Santa Fe, Texas, for treating poor misdemeanor crime defendants as "job security" by trying to force money out of them or else sending them off to the cells.

The election did see one potential piece of good news for how states and counties deal with bail. In New Mexico, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment reforming the bail system. Their system now specifically declares that defendants may not be "detained solely because of financial inability to post a money or property bond."

It will take some time to see whether the amendment is effective. The defendant must prove his or her indigence to the court itself, which would then rule whether the defendant is truly too poor to pay. Given the financial incentives that have driven this sort of behavior by judges, some might well be rather reluctant to look upon these requests charitably. The New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association supported the original draft of the amendment. Once the original text was changed to give the court itself the authority to determine a defendant's poverty, the association turned against it.

Earlier in the week, Attorney General Loretta Lynch called for an overhaul of local court systems to avoid treating the poor in this fashion. From the Washington Post:

"When we begin to treat defendants as cash registers, rather than citizens, we do more damage to the fabric of our institutions," Lynch told a crowd of judges, lawyers and law clerks gathered for an annual lecture at the U.S. District Court in Washington, a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol.
"We stain the sanctity of our laws. And we only tighten the shackles of those struggling to break the chains of poverty."

But Lynch will soon be making way for the Trump administration, and possibly Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) will replace him. Sessions is awful on several civil liberty and criminal justice issues, as Anthony Fisher noted earlier in the week. I've previously noted how he's a supporter of civil asset forfeiture here and of unwarranted government surveillance here.

Oh, and a special side note to anybody from the Texas Organizing Project who might be reading this blog post: Supporting bail reform to keep poor people from rotting in debtors' prisons is a noble cause. But what's not a noble cause is at the same time lobbying San Antonio police to step up patrols in order to arrest drug dealers and prostitutes. You're contributing to the problem.

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  1. 55 human beings died in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial after being unable pay the amount of money demanded by the County for their release.

    What does the state do with dead bodies? Cadaver material or can family pay a fee for a chance at burial?

    1. Sell the to the Soylent Corporation.

    2. Kibble ’em to save money on police dog upkeep?

  2. “We stain the sanctity of our laws

    by not prosecuting people who set up serves to get around FOIA laws.

  3. Sure, it’s an injustice. But keeping drugs illegal is “job security”. The entire regulatory and security state is “job security”. We’re all job security for the state.

    1. Their business is giving us the business… and business is booming.

      1. *polite, golf-style applause*

  4. Actually, I’d prefer to see the opposite of what this article seems to want.

    I would prefer it if the wealthy and the middle class didn’t have the ability to bribe local officials into letting them out of jail for their petty offenses. Maybe then, they would realize that the real punishment for most petty offenses is actually jail instead of the slap on the wrist you get when you pay off officials.

    The fact that even the Reason writers who talk about these cases seem blissfully unaware that it amounts to institutionalized and legal bribery is irritating. The real punishment for any infraction is jail, you can just get out of it with cash. Reason see’s this is as some kind of debtors prison, which you can interpret it that way I suppose, but in reality it’s legalized bribery.

    1. Why can’t it be both?

      1. I don’t consider it a debtors prison because in a debtors prison you don’t get out until you pay off the individual you owe money to (or never). In America, you get ‘paid’ a certain amount per day in the klink until, arguably, it equals the fine you did not pay the state.

        Ergo, for most petty crime in America, you’re paying off your fine with time instead of cash with the presumption that you can’t afford the cash but everyone has time (Unless you’re one of those people who die in jail, I guess.)

        In other words, in a debtors prison you never get out. In America, you get out but you don’t get to decide how much your time is worth. This isn’t true for all offenses, but it’s becoming more and more true when ‘affluenza’ can get out off for capital crimes.

    2. In the case of bail they are people who haven’t been convicted. You can’t pay your way out of an actual sentence. Are you saying that everyone who is arrested and charged with something should just sit in jail until their trial?

      The real punishment for any infraction is jail

      I don’t think this is true at all, nor should it be.

      I’m not even sure what you are trying to argue for here. Should every speeding ticket mean jail time because people who can’t or won’t pay the fines end up in jail?

      I see that your intent it to make people aware of the need for certain reforms, but I don’t think it would really work. Most wealthy and middle class people never get caught for their petty offenses. The “make things worse so people will wake up to how bad it is and make things better” approach is more likely just to cause more people to get screwed and still not change much.

      1. The part where you mention bail is a good point, and it’s something I overlooked, but wouldn’t the fair thing be to let everyone out of jail for free since they haven’t been convicted? My opinion is yes, since it’s supposed to be fair and equal but it’s obvious even to the unwashed masses that it’s anything but that. I believe there’s usually a consideration of what the crime itself was if bail is even an option, and that seems fair enough if it’s consistent.

        And also, yes, speeding tickets should result in everyone getting jail time if jail time is considered a just punishment for anyone. That is what fair and equal should mean. The fact that it clearly and obvious does not mean that would be the problem. Those who can’t pay the ticket go to jail, those who can pay the ticket do not. This is, to me, grossly unfair. (Cue some chucklehead talking about if you can’t afford the ticket, don’t drive a car.)

        Please explain how it’s ok to put someone in jail if they are poor, but it’s perfectly fine to let someone with money off the hook because they gave the state cash. And your contention that ‘wealthy people don’t get caught’ is horse shit. Believe me, the cops would love to chase you in your Lexus/BMW/Ferrari if they clocked you going 200MPH. They know that you’re good for the cash.

        1. I can see where you are coming from. But I’m not sure fairness is a good thing if it leads to worse outcomes overall.

          This is something I have a hard time making my mind up on, but I think it is better to have an unfair system where fewer people are treated unjustly than a fair system where more people are treated unjustly.

          You’d like to believe that the latter would push people to agitate for change, but I’m not so sure how that would work out.

          When I talk about rich and middle class people not getting caught, I’m thinking more of things like petty drug possession or public drinking than speeding. Though I would suggest that for the most part you are less likely to get stopped for going 15 over in a nice looking car than in some old beater. If you are racing around in your BMW, yeah, they are going to get you if the can catch up.

          1. You’d like to believe that the latter would push people to agitate for change, but I’m not so sure how that would work out.

            History has largely shown that it doesn’t work out. Because even doing it even-handed, you aren’t arresting/brutalizing the majority of people. There’s always enough of a mass that just shrugs and assumes that the ones getting caught up in the system had it coming (they shouldn’t have broken the law!) that all it serves is to make a lot more people miserable without solving anything.

            1. Perhaps in some laws that would be true, I imagine it would be honestly. But in the case of the minutiae of modern life, where the FedGov sticks it’s nose into every cranny and your average person commits three felonies a day, there would be outrage the like of which we haven’t seen since the 1700’s.

              1. I’d really like to believe that. But we’ll just disagree here. The fucking Cambodians went along with murdering 1/3 of their entire population and it took a Vietnamese invasion to put a stop to it. So we know that humans in the right conditions will tolerate at least up to 33% mortality in pursuit of the fiction of legitimate authority – how much higher are we willing to push that number?

                1. So, in your view, don’t reform anything because we might have another Civil War. Sorry, I’m having a bit of a total logical disconnect with that.

                  1. Um, no, not what I said at all, but thanks for playing.

                    My position is that your specified solution won’t lead to the outcome you are hoping for, because society has a much higher tolerance for repression than I believe you give it credit for.

                    1. Please note that my disagreement with your specific take on this issue =/= “never reform anything”.

                    2. The goal for me is to reduce laws that dictate how much water you can use when you shit, for example. If everyone were perfectly punished for every law they break every day, everyone in America would most likely be in jail for 5 to 10 years at minimum.

                      I would just like to see petty and low-hanging fruit laws that are intended to modify non-harmful behaviors stop putting poorer Americans in jail and for the law to be more consistent. By no means is this the only reform I would like to see. I’d also like to see the law return to a basis where harm must be proven for something to be illegal in the first place. So ultimately you’re probably right, in that there are other reforms that would better fit that might serve the same ends, but something does need to change.

                    3. I get it now; we’re talking past each other because you’re describing every bullshit law being enforced in a perfect world, whereas I’m only speaking of how much could actually be enforced in the real world given the resources of the state.

                      In the former scenario, you’re right, everyone would be in jail. In mine, it would just be even more of a police state than things already are, and I personally believe that by and large, people would just sullenly put up with it.

                      I wish I had some pithy answers for this issue, but I really honestly don’t. I think it goes back to what must have been a drive that was valuable from an evolution standpoint, but which is now vestigial: the instinct that there must always be someone in charge, and that everyone else must obey. Until that goes away (so, say, another 50,000 years?), we’re fighting an uphill battle.

                    4. More or less, yes. The issue is that in the current state of affairs, everyone is guilty of something. We all just hope that no one looks too closely. Thus, the state is the enemy of everyone but until that is made manifest very few people will believe it. It has become that way because there have been over 200 years worth of crisis for the government to carve out bullshit laws when the time was ripe.

                      Ultimately, it just chaps my ass that someone can get a speeding ticket and go to jail when someone else just drops cash on the table that could amount to as a little as five minutes of their time and walk out scott free for the exact same offense. All this to create the illusion of a little more safety. So really, I do agree with you about the mentality. The trick is to make people face the reality of what it really is.

                      And yeah, I realize that in our system of government that’s basically impossible. I can dream though, and drive my point home to anyone who might listen.

          2. “Zeb|11.18.16 @ 5:02PM|#

            I can see where you are coming from. But I’m not sure fairness is a good thing if it leads to worse outcomes overall.

            This is something I have a hard time making my mind up on, but I think it is better to have an unfair system where fewer people are treated unjustly than a fair system where more people are treated unjustly.”

            I see where you’re coming from as well, it’s my opinion that in a system where people were actually treated fairly the law would ultimately be more rational and fair because, when it wasn’t so, the people would very quickly take notice and act to correct misbegotten law.

            As things stand now, shitty laws can stay on the books for literally centuries. That is a huge problem for me.

            I personally very much agree with Lincoln in that “The best way to get a bad law repealed is to enforce it strictly.”

    3. Isn’t the point of a bail system to lower the costs of housing people awaiting trial, to keep only the most potentially dangerous ones out of public, and to set up a system by which the state can afford necessary costs to track a person down and imprison them if they attempt to flee (and serve as disincentive to do so)? Bail, then, is a clever use of a market incentive system to ensure that people stand trial most of the time.

      In that light, the wealthier douchebag who is in jail for a misdemeanor gets out right away because he can afford to and isn’t much of a threat of fleeing. The likely murderer doesn’t get at all regardless of wealth. The poor get screwed because there is a nonzero cost to track people down who may flee. If there is a guarantee that bail below a certain amount is always paid, the disincentive to flee is gone. Not your cash on the line, not your problem. Kind of like a “bail minimum wage” which has an obvious outcome.

      What is the check against judges setting maliciously high bail?

      1. “Excessive bail shall not be required…”
        – 8th Amendment, US Constitution.

        1. The government protects its own to the point where speed bumps such as that aren’t even an impediment anymore. It investigates itself and rarely finds itself guilty of anything. The Constitution also guarantees us a speedy trial, but fails to define “speedy” and leaves us with another speed bump worn smooth.

          So, I reiterate: what is the check against judges setting maliciously high bail?

      2. Grr…I erased my comment so now I’ll be concise.

        The short reply is that I was talking specifically about after they’re found guilty, more or less.

        In terms of before being found guilty, my opinion that certain crimes should allow you out of jail regardless of ability to pay based on how petty the offense is and how harmful to someone else it was. If too many people aren’t showing up to court, well, the legislature will need to decide if everyone gets locked up for it or if it’s such a petty crime that perhaps it shouldn’t be illegal at all.

        There is a huge, huge problem with funding being tied to prosecution. It’s a major conflict of interest for the State.

        1. I’m confused by what you seem to think bail must be. You don’t get bail after a trial has found you guilty. Do you mean fines as punishments are unfair because the wealthy can easily pay them and the poor cannot, assuming that the fines aren’t proportional to wealth?

          1. Bail is the value set by the court on what you can pay to not spend the intervening time before your court date in jail. What I’m talking about is the punishment after being found guilty. Bail is a problem as well, but it’s not most of what I’m talking about. Sorry if that wasn’t made clear. I thought the bail issue was pretty succinctly addressed by both yourself and Deep Lurker; in that it’s unconstitutional at face value, end of story.

        2. When it comes to bail, I think personal recognizance should be used a lot more. For most people the threat of additional charges is a bigger incentive to show up for trial than the possibility of losing your bail money.

          1. There are a lot of options. House arrest, ankle bracelets and monitoring, etc. Maybe a better solution than a one-size-fits-all is to offer several options and permit the accused a choice.

            Perhaps part of a solution to malicious judicial behavior is to require insurance. Instead of the state paying out when it is sued over rights violations, the judge’s insurance is dinged. If it gets to be so expensive that a judge can no longer operate due to the fact that nobody will insure him, market forces remove him from the bench. It’s a roundabout way for juries to also judge the law, but isn’t so different from medical malpractice, and judges have as much power to ruin lives as doctors do. Does this already happen? I don’t know.

            1. Or they could post jury nullification notices up inside each jury deliberation area? I’m not sure that it’s even a thing, I suspect it is not, but since I’m not a lawyer and it goes along with that I would prefer I’ll go with that.

              Either way, in an ideal society money would not have anything to do with access to justice or how you are ultimately judged. Obviously, the ideal doesn’t exist.

    4. Also, the problem with your philosophy is that it assumes guilt before a court proves it.

      1. I was only referring to after they’ve been found guilty, despite the article mostly talking about before. My fault for not being clear.

  5. One Harris County Texas Magistrate doubled a woman’s bail from $1,000 to $2,000 because she responded to his questions with “Yeah” instead of “yes.”

    If *only* she’d responded with “Yowsah!”

    1. +1 What’s a ute?

    2. I suspect that’s less than half a story.

  6. progressive activist group the Texas Organizing Project

    A group super-fine with authoritarianism, just as long as socioeconomic class is taken into consideration.

  7. I see the Loveshack keeps bringin’ it with the alt-text. And the last paragraph is fucking gold – I’m glad for once in my miserable life, I read all the way through to the bottom of the article.

  8. The county is being sued for failing to consider whether defendants are able to afford bail in cases where they aren’t flight risks. One lawsuit noted:

    You’d think that if they aren’t flight risks then whether or not they can *afford* bail would be irrelevant – as you’d release them without bail.

    Its only if they’re flight risks that you assign bail (and I’m willing to add people who can’t be bothered to show up to court to ‘flight risk’ here) and *then* you can worry about setting it high enough to ensure they’ll come back but low enough that they can afford it.

  9. Lynch told a crowd of judges, lawyers and law clerks

    Its amazing how much they fucking care when its too late to do anything about it.

  10. RE: Texas Judge Tells Woman Given $3,500 Bond for Misdemeanors She’s ‘Job Security’
    County sued for not caring whether defendants can pay high bails.

    Yes, the little people should pay more for fines, bail, etc because the judge is correct. The little people are there to make sure all public servants live a wealthy lifestyle. After all, you don’t want people who extort our tax dollars to live with the lowly plebian class they’re oppressing, do you?

  11. I’m a harm reduction guy Scott but have you ever stepped outside your bubble and been to a community meeting?

    People beg implore etc us (police) to ‘arrest the drug dealers’ ‘shut down the meth house’ etc

    Reason creates the it’s the community vs the cops narrative (ignoring polling Data showing support for police is near an all-time high ) but in actual neighborhoods – drug dealer crackdowns are DESIRED by those members of The community who care enough to actually go to meetings and tell the police their concerns

    1. This is the very reason why I put that final paragraph in there and directed it at them. I mean, why would I bother otherwise?

      1. Fair enough. Pro tip for reasonoids – it’s not quite Gazi Kodzo ‘Community Control of the Police’ but if you want to have some influence over cop policy vs leaving it to the statists – -attend community meetings, citizen academies and offer an alternative voice

        Silent minorities are not effective

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