Harris County, the most populous place in Texas, has bowed to pressure to reform its bail practices and settle a federal lawsuit.
County officials agreed with the move in late July, in a case Commissioner Rodney Ellis said was “as big as Brown v. Board of Education,” the Texas Tribune reported. Harris County has been embroiled in a long-running legal battle over a cash bail system that critics said keeps low-income, petty offenders locked up for months at a time.
Federal judges branded Harris County’s bail practices as unconstitutional after a lawsuit was launched by inmates at Harris County Jail.
Judges decided the county’s pretrial system was discriminatory against poor misdemeanor defendants. In January, Harris County judges halted the old cash bail system.
County officials hope their settlement proposal will become a model for bail reform across Texas and further afield. The settlement bolsters the local judges’ policies of automatic, no-cash pretrial release for approximately 85 percent of low-level defendants in Harris County. The new system gives additional legal and social services to impoverished defendants and provides help for them to get court dates.
The apparent resolution of a long standoff in Harris County may impact other jurisdictions that are also the subject of lawsuits over their cash bail systems.
Bail practices in Dallas County were also criticized by a federal judge, who said they violate the rights of defendants. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said the Harris County decision could provide a roadmap for other jurisdictions, although there are some differences in the Dallas lawsuit.
The lawsuit in Dallas, along with one in Galveston, targets bail practices in felony as well as misdemeanor cases.
U.S. District Judge David Godbey said Dallas County has to stop imposing pre-set bail bond amounts that keep poorer defendants locked up for weeks or months in jails while richer defendants can walk free. He claimed that the county uses “wealth-based detention.”
Across the country, many jurisdictions are moving away from cash bail systems. However, a move by the Texas legislature to reform bail was unsuccessful this year.
At present, thousands of non-violent defendants remain locked up in jails across Texas because they cannot afford their release. Please contact our Dallas defense team about bail in Texas.