On Tuesday, July 30, 2019, the Harris County Commissioners Court resolved a class-action lawsuit regarding the constitutionality of the county bail system by approving a historic settlement. The agreement is intended to solve what a federal judge referred to as the “irreparable harm” caused by the system. Houston criminal defense lawyer, Robert Fickman, referred to the antiquated and unlawful bond practice in Harris County as the "plea mill".
The vote formally approved the settlement agreement on behalf of the county, but it must still be approved by the court. Once implemented, the new bail system intends to dramatically lower pretrial incarceration rates for misdemeanor defendants.
Litigation regarding the bond system in Harris County has been ongoing for years. In 2017, a federal judge struck down the system as unconstitutional. In the decision, the judge found that the county violated the United States Constitution by disproportionately jailing indigent residents before trial compared to wealthy residents facing identical charges.
The case began on behalf of three indigent defendants that were incarcerated due to their inability to afford bail, but the case quickly grew into a class-action lawsuit.
The Effectiveness of Cash Bail
Cash bail is still common practice across the country. However, the calls to eliminate demands for money as bail have grown louder in recent years. These calls for change stem in part from litigation in other states and academic research that cast doubt on the effectiveness of the cash bail system.
There is little evidence that cash bail reduces the likelihood of a defendant re-offending and is disproportionately harmful to indigent defendants who do not have the means to pay for bail. In some cases, the courts in Harris County required thousands of dollars in bail money on charges as minor as driving with a suspended license.
The Bail System Deemed Unconstitutional in Harris County
The unconstitutional system of bail in Harris County was two-tiered. For defendants wealthy enough to afford bail, payment of the bail money was enough to secure a quick release following an arrest to await trial in the comfort of home.
The system is different for anyone without the financial means to afford cash bail. For those defendants, the only option was to wait in jail until the trial. In many cases, this process could take months even for minor offenses.
The system led to injustice, as it pushed indigent defendants to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit in order to get out of jail, take care of their children, and salvage their job.
Reforms from the Settlement
The biggest takeaway from the proposed settlement is a significant reduction in pretrial detention for most misdemeanors. According to the Civil Rights Corps, the group behind the class action, more than 80 percent of all misdemeanor defendants will be released on personal bond as opposed to a cash bond. The court will still require defendants to comply with certain conditions to remain free pending trial.
While a change in the bail system can have a major impact on those charged with certain misdemeanors and felonies, the cash bail system remains in place for felony charges. In addition to preparing your case for trial, a Houston criminal defense attorney can also work to have your cash bail reduced while you await trial.
To discuss your options, contact the Doug Murphy Law Firm, LLC today.