Harris County Bail Ruling is a Victory for Justice and Safety, Says Pretrial Justice Institute

 

For Immediate Release: May 3, 2017
Contact: Fiona Druge, fiona.druge@berlinrosen.com,

Texas Federal Judge Rules County’s Money Bail System is Unconstitutional

In response to a ruling from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordering Harris County, Texas to stop jailing people before trial on misdemeanor charges simply because they could not afford bail, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, chief executive officer of the Pretrial Justice Institute, issued the following statement:

This landmark ruling is a turning point for Harris County and the work to improve pretrial systems across this county. It shows that the courts recognize not only what many people within the criminal justice system know—that detaining low-risk, legally innocent people because they cannot afford their freedom is costly and ineffective—but also that using money to determine who stays in jail and who gets released is a violation of the Constitution’s basic guarantees of due process and equal protection. The ruling finds Harris County doesn’t have a reasonable basis to believe that money bail ensures better pretrial outcomes, and orders Harris County to release misdemeanor defendants.

“There is still work to be done to make Harris County’s pretrial justice system safer, fairer, and more effective, but other jurisdictions should take note of this ruling. It’s time for more cities, counties, and states to take meaningful action to improve their pretrial justice system before they’re forced to do so by the courts.”

The ruling includes an injunction that after May 15th bars Harris County from keeping poor, lower risk people accused of misdemeanors in jail before trial, who would otherwise be free but for the price of their money bail.  Judge Rosenthal’s scathing ruling notes, “[i]n Harris County, secured money bail is not just a de facto pretrial detention order; it is literally a pretrial detention order.”

Citing volumes of work, including Pretrial Justice Institute’s 2014 “Colorado” study on money bail, Judge Rosenthal concludes our  “finding is consistent with recent empirical work in other jurisdictions.”  She further states: “Harris County’s policy is to detain indigent misdemeanor defendants before trial, violating equal protection rights against wealth-based discrimination and violating due process protections against pretrial detention without proper procedures or an opportunity to be heard…. According to the most recent and credible evidence, secured financial conditions of pretrial release do not outperform alternative nonfinancial or unsecured conditions of pretrial release in ensuring the appearance of misdemeanor defendants at hearings.”

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The Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI) is a national organization working to advance safe, fair, and effective pretrial justice that honors and protects all people. To learn more about PJI or their 3DaysCount campaign, which aims to support commonsense solutions to longstanding pretrial justice challenges in 20 states, visit www.pretrial.org.

Facts about money bail and pretrial detention in America:

  • Most people in American jailsmore than 6 in 10have not yet been to trial; the vast majority are there because they can’t afford cash bail.
  • More than 80% of criminal defendants qualify for indigent defense based on poverty.
  • Even three days in jail can result in loss of wages, jobs, housing, and family connections, leaving some defendants 40% more likely to commit future crime.
  • Nearly half of high-risk defendants exploit the money bail system and use bail bondsmen to get out.
  • The tools exist to replace the outdated money bail system with a risk-based system that is safe, fair, and effective, and many jurisdictions have demonstrated it is possible.

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