Proposed Settlement Puts One Texas County on the Cusp of Major Bail and Pretrial Reform

jail cellFollowing a class action lawsuit, a Texas county’s cash bail system was found to be unconstitutional as some indigent misdemeanor defendants were being held in jail solely because they could not afford bail.

The proposed settlement to that lawsuit could impose landmark changes to how Harris County, the third most populous county in the nation, handles bail and services for misdemeanor defendants. While the county had some unique issues at play the settlement if imposed may inspire cash bail and pretrial reform efforts across the nation.

The Houston Chronicle reports:

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free childcare at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or rideshare services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The article notes that officials anticipate the costs for the proposed services will be paid in part by reinvesting the savings incurred from diverting the defendants from jail — a cost of $80 a day per person. The proposed settlement is still under consideration and must still be approved by Harris County Commissioners Court, the plaintiffs’ attorneys and U.S. District Court Judge overseeing the lawsuit.

In 2017 changes to the Maryland court rules governing the use of bail went into effect to address concerns that defendants could be held in jail pretrial simply because they cannot afford bail. The rules provided clearer guidance to a judge or commissioner for taking a defendants financial circumstances into consideration when setting a bond and directed them to impose the least onerous conditions for release on a defendant who is not a flight risk or a danger to society.

To learn more read the full article in The Houston Chronicle