Bail

Harris County, Texas, Flashpoint of Bail Reform Battles, Will Mostly Eliminate Cash Demands in Minor Cases

Lawsuits playing out for three years spotlight how poor people end up trapped in jail even before being convicted.

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Get out of jail
Anthony Furgison / Dreamstime.com

Harris County, Texas, has essentially been ground zero in the fight to reform how cash bail works in America. Civil rights lawyers have successfully sued the county in federal court for locking up indigent arrestees and requiring them to pay cash bail, even for minor crimes and in cases when they are neither dangers to the community nor flight risks.

The county has been ordered by federal judges to reform its practices so that money is not the determining factor of whether somebody is free or detained prior to trial. But judges and county leaders—many of them Republican—have been resisting these demands, and Harris County has spent an estimated $9 million since 2016 fighting the lawsuits.

Then the blue wave came in November and pretty much all of those resistant judges were tossed from office and replaced with Democrats. Credit or blame straight-party voting for the outcome. Democrats and Republicans turned out to vote in equal percentages in Harris County, but a higher percentage of voters, 42 percent to 33 percent, took the straight party option to vote for each Democrat on the ballot rather than for a few Republicans a la carte.

The new crop of Democratic judges are supporting bail reform. Earlier in January, not long after being sworn into office, these judges dropped the county's efforts to appeal federal rulings ordering changes to the system.

This week, that same crop of new judges, working in tandem with prosecutors and the Harris County Sheriff's Department, are announcing new bail guidelines intended to eliminate the dependency on cash bail as a determinant for pre-trial release in misdemeanor cases. From The Houston Chronicle:

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing—for up to 48 hours—for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

"What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out," Jordan said. "The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country."

To be clear here, these changes are only for misdemeanor crimes. Nobody is likely walking free without bail after being charged with armed robbery or attempted murder.

The changes, unfortunately, will come too late for Tracy Whited, who was arrested on Saturday in Harris County for misdemeanor charges from a fight with an ex-boyfriend and a subsequent attempt to leave the jail while she was being booked. Her bail was set for $3,000. She was found hanging by a sheet in her cell on Monday and died in the hospital on Wednesday. She's the fifth suicide in that jail in two years, according to the Houston Chronicle.

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  1. To be clear here, these changes are only for misdemeanor crimes. Nobody is likely walking free without bail after being charged with armed robbery or attempted murder.

    It’s time to start charging criminals with felonies instead of misdemeanors, Harris County. The scum can plead down to a misdemeanor after a few months in the klink. Problem solved.

    Get on it before our streets run rampant with criminals set free by hippie leftists.

    1. Yeah, that seems like exactly what will happen to be honest. Houston isn’t exactly known for it’s pleasant police force.

    2. People like you are the problem. Harris County has abused the bail system for far too long. I used to vote Republican. This last election I voted straight Libertarian in Harris County.

      1. You must be new around here. For future reference, just assume that Crusty’s posts contain invisible [sarc] tags.

  2. So I’m looking for some help guys. I know I mentioned that I was going to go back to college because I dropped out and I was stuck in a dead end job, but I’ve had to rethink that because my wife has left me. She has been cheating for a while with my boss, and now my marriage is over and my job probably is too. She says she waited long enough for me to stop messing around and make something of myself. I still want to go back to college, because I need the education and I know it, but I’m thinking I should just let my wife go and try to find a better job before mine implodes. Oh and she’s marrying my boss and my daughter already calls him “daddy” after less than a month. My wife says it’s because he spoils her woth things I won’t ever be able to afford.

    I kind of want to kill myself. But I don’t think anyone would care or notice.

    1. Um, what the fuck is going on? You posted this as Sparky in a different thread.

      1. He’s being bitchy because people won’t think he’s the greatest thing ever.

        1. Did anyone ever think Sparky/Tulpa was the greatest thing ever?

          1. I sure hope not. That would be seriously fucking tragic.

            1. Tantrum harder over your failure!!!

        2. I’m not. I’m a piece of shit that my wife thinks diddled my daughter.

          1. I’m not. I’m a piece of shit that my wife thinks diddled my daughter.

            Do you care to re-tell the story in as much detail as possible? You know, to see if we can determine how wrong it is and stuff.

            1. I just did. My wife left me and accused me of diddling my daughter.

              1. Go back to college for sure. But first, spend all your savings on some PUA classes so you can land some young strange to take away all that stress you will have from studying. Or just ask me for advice.

              2. Seriously, though, sounds like good riddance to your wife. You got a chance to start completely over. Some would be jealous. Go get yourself a new life. If you feel depressed, go run till you puke.

  3. …Harris County has spent an estimated $9 million since 2016 fighting the lawsuits.

    They’re going to have to demand so much bail from broke defendants now.

  4. She was arrested by sheriff’s deputies and charged with criminal mischief, according to court records. Then, she racked up a misdemeanor escape charge when she allegedly tried to leave the jail’s booking facility later that day.

    A hearing officer denied her a no-cash personal bond and instead set bail at $3,000. Court papers noted that she had three pending cases out of county, though she’d never been locked up in the local jail before, and doesn’t appear to have a criminal record in Harris County.

    Scott, I’m not sure exactly how Texas will pursue this bail reform vs., say California. But if the counties/states are issuing no-cash bail on a case-by-case basis which results in a review where you are no longer given bail but a binary pass-fail system, it’s possible Tracy Whited would have fallen flat into the “fail” column.

    It seems that the Texas reforms may still assign (or not) bail based on the circumstances of the case.

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