Bail reforms have been enacted in Texas in recent years after inmates brought lawsuits that claimed they languished in jail for lengthy periods on misdemeanor charges.
Although opponents of moves to release more inmates without requiring cash bail claimed reforms could result in more arrests for reoffending, a recent survey found these fears were unfounded.
A federal judge appointed independent monitors under the terms of a settlement order in a lawsuit that led to changes in the Harris County bail system. The report released this month found releasing more misdemeanor defendants from jail in Texas’ largest jurisdiction did not lead to a rise in reoffending.
Most jurisdictions have used cash bail systems for decades. However, many states have explored and implemented alternatives to cash bail in recent years. Lawsuits brought by inmates in Harris County opened up the debate in Texas.
The Texas Tribune reported on how the lawsuit argued Harris County’s cash-based bail system was unconstitutional. The litigants pointed out a poor inmate could be stuck in jail for long periods before their trial while another defendant facing similar charges with the same criminal history could walk free if they could afford bail.
A federal judge in Houston agreed in 2017. The judge criticized Harris County for its bail practices and ordered the release of most misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours of arrest, irrespective of their ability to pay.
The decision sparked bail reforms in Harris County two years later. In January 2019, new judges changed county policies. Most misdemeanor defendants now qualify for automatic jail release on no-cash bonds.
Change has been slower in other jurisdictions including Dallas. In 2018, U.S. District Judge David Godbey ruled that Dallas County should dismantle its cash bail system. He found low-income defendants who were accused of committing nonviolent crimes remained in jail because they couldn’t afford to post bail. Hopes for reform have since been dashed, reported Dallas Magazine. Two years on, a court battle is continuing. Lawsuits in Dallas and Galveston target bail practices not only for misdemeanor defendants but for felony cases, too.
The report into the changes enacted in Harris County suggested bail reform had little effect on re-offending rates. Brandon Garrett, a law professor at Duke University and independent monitor of the reforms, wrote:
“This misdemeanor bail reform is working as intended, and there are real results. Many more people are released promptly, cash bond amounts are vastly reduced except in cases where there will be public safety concerns … [and] there has been no change in reoffending.”
Opponents of the changes warned people released from jail on misdemeanor offenses without a bond might re-offend. The research team found the rate of new criminal complaints filed against misdemeanor defendants in Harris County within 12 months of their initial arrest did not change since the reforms were implemented in early 2019.
The report also highlighted a gap between white and Black defendants who were released from jail before their trial. Prior to the lawsuit, white people were more likely to bond out of jail before their trial than African Americans.
The report did not address the concern that defendants who are released automatically will not show up for subsequent court appearances.
Bail bond companies claim their system ensures defendants show up for their court appearances. They keep track of their clients to make sure they appear and defendants who pay the full cash bond upfront are only reimbursed if they keep court appearances.
The researchers do not yet have data on court appearances but it will feature in future reporting.
Our Dallas-based criminal defense attorneys are acutely aware of the unfairness of a system that locks up people charged with minor offenses for long periods because they cannot make bond payments. We do everything in our power to ensure defendants do not languish in Texas’ dangerous jails. Please contact us if you or a family member has been charged with an offense.