In 2017, a federal judge ruled that Harris County’s bail system violates the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution by basing bail and pretrial detention decisions partly on the defendant’s ability to pay. Basically, poor defendants are usually held before trial solely due to their inability to pay their bail.
The federal judge found that this practice causes “irreparable harm” to thousands of low-income defendants, all of whom are to be presumed innocent.
The lawsuit was filed in 2016 and eventually became a class action. After the judge’s ruling, the plaintiffs and the county began the process of deciding how bail will be determined in the future. They have now come to a resolution and are settling the case.
According to the settlement agreement, which must still be approved by the judge, Harris County will be required to make several important changes to its bail system:
- About 85% of misdemeanor defendants will automatically be released on their own recognizance
- A monitor will oversee the new bail protocols for seven years
- Public defender services and other safeguards will help ensure defendants appear at their court dates
- Courts will have open hours to help defendants clear or prevent warrants
- A bail education program for court officials and the public will be created
- Data will be publicly collected about what is and isn’t working
- An additional county criminal court and another probable cause court will be created
In addition, the county has agreed to pay around $4.7 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs. The county has already spent about $9.1 million to defend the unconstitutional bail system.
“It took a long time for this system to be put in place — this oppressive system has existed for decades,” commented County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a vocal supporter of bail reform.
County officials estimate that the new system will cost between $59 million and $97 million over the next seven years.
Hopefully, these reforms will help ensure that no one is held before trial simply because they can’t afford bail, and that no one pleads guilty merely because their lives have been disrupted by pretrial detention.