The push towards bail reform is a natural consequence of mass incarceration in the United States. The condition is widespread: Americans who can’t afford bail can’t get out of jail, and it’s costing the government over $1 billion per year. Thousands of people today are locked up even if presumed innocent because they can’t pay – “three out of four” in fact, as Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht warned the GOP-run Legislature in 2017.

But with recent changes to Harris County’s Court system, things are moving along at a rapid rate for bail reform. Here’s a quick guide to what’s happening in Harris County, and the succession of events that led to these changes taking place.

Change at a Local Level

Bail reform is one of the least divisive or debated issue in politics, but one that remains largely unchampioned by state and federal legislatures. Silence on the state level forces city and county-level legislatures to change laws on their own. Republican Supreme Court Chief Justice Hecht warned that people who can’t pay bail lose jobs and families, causing them to be much more likely to re-offend. But the cost of housing them – $1 billion per year – is alarming enough to draw lawmakers’ attention at the local level.

November 2018: Harris County Changes Legislatures

The past Democratic win in November changed the structure of Harris County court and elected a string of new judges who began to start approvals and look over bail reform right away. The vote to settle a bail lawsuit is unusual for Harris County. For the past several years, the legislature spent over $9 million taxpayer dollars fighting bail reform, even when the Republican-appointed judge pronounced the system unconstitutional in 2017.

Harris County Becomes the New Center for Bail Reform

Harris County now, however, appears to be the center for bail reform, with judges approving a new rule like the bail reform package. This rule lets defendants bond out over their own recognizance instead of await trial in jail when they can’t afford to pay bail. “This case is just as big as Brown v. Board of Education,” said Rodney Ellis, Harris County Commissioner said of Harris County’s landmark bail reform settlement agreement, comparing it to the motion to desegregate schools in the 1960s. Bail bonds are issued as a means of securing the defendant’s promise to show up for their court date, but oftentimes, even when bails are paid, the defendant does not arrive. In states and districts that do not rely on cash bails, like Washington D.C. for example, 88% of defendants do show up to their court date. Many sitting in jail without trial would be released, but still expected to come to trial.

Goals of Harris County’s Bail Reform

  • Individual Assessment. What Harris County officials are pushing for is an individual assessment of each person, and determine if there is any means other than financial that will secure the defendant’s return to court.
  • Speedy Release. One of the reforms listed is a new rule that, if implemented, would lead to the speedy release of defendants on misdemeanor charges. Citizens kept in jail for misdemeanors without means to pay for bail and without a conviction are the primary cause for the uproar on high bail prices and is precisely what officials want to target.
  • Open-Hours Court Sessions. The agreement also slackens the pre-trial process, and schedules weekly “open hours” sessions in court to give those who missed the initial court appearance the opportunity to reschedule without the fear of returning to jail.

An Ongoing Battle

Today, bail reform cites incidents like the 64-year-old Kenneth Humphrey spending a year in jail on a $350,000 bail for being accused stealing someone’s $7 bottle of cologne in someone else’s home continue to ignite the fires of bail controversy in the United States. Humphrey’s trial court did not inquire into his financial means or whether he could receive an alternative to cash bail, instead deferring to California’s preset bail schedules (California has now abolished the cash bail system as of 2018). Incidents like these, and many more, are what leads Ellis to say that whatever happens in Harris County, Texas, may have an effect on criminal justice reform at large.

Saturday, October 12th, County Commissioner Rodney Ellis joins three other judges in a town hall on bail reform at Lincoln Park Community Center in Houston at 9 A.M. to discuss how to individually assess bail and the impending decision from Harris County Court.

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