The Chron today features a story by Mike Tolson about the trend toward requiring bail for low-level defendants, a topic on which Grits has focused extensively in the past. At a time when Harris County's jail has 1,000 inmates beyond capacity, and the county pays for another 600 to be housed in Louisiana, judges' decisions to allow fewer of these bonds directly contributes to non-compliance with state regulations and extra costs from leasing jail beds. Reports Tolson ("Use of no cash bonds drop," April 6):
This is the biggest reason I was glad Harris County voters rejected a new jail last year. The county's jail overcrowding are largely volitional, mostly caused by misguided judicial choices, and perhaps the biggest single cause is the failure to issue personal bonds. Again from Tolson:
Over the past 15 years, the use of personal bonds has all but disappeared in low-grade felony cases. Most Harris County district court judges say they would consider them for the right defendant, but the numbers suggest the "right" defendant rarely appears.
It has not always been this way. In 1994, personal bonds accounted for the release of almost 9,000 people from the Harris County Jail, including more than 1,800 facing low-grade felony charges, frequently drug possession.
A decade later, only 109 felony defendants were let out of jail without posting a cash bond. By 2007 that number was up slightly — to 153 — which translates into less than one half of one percent of the 36,176 people in jail interviewed by pretrial services officers.
Fewer personal bonds may be good for the bonding companies, as some people who once got them might be able to pay to get out of jail, especially if charged with a misdemeanor. But defense lawyers complain it is neither smart nor fair.
"What this means is that if you are really poor, you have zero chance of getting out of jail before your trial," said Pat McCann, president of the Harris Country Criminal Lawyers Association. "If you're a poor person in jail, you're screwed."
I'm really glad the local paper has finally caught onto this story, which IMO lies at the core of the debate Harris and other counties with overcrowded jails should be having.
The consequences are two-fold. Fewer personal bonds contributes to the Harris County Jail being filled beyond capacity, requiring local taxpayers to spend $9 million a year to house approximately 600 prisoners in a private Louisiana jail. And people who cannot post a bond are far more likely to plead guilty in order to get out of jail.
"It's just plain nuts," said state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who chairs the Senate's criminal justice committee and has talked with local judges and jail officials about the issue. "You've got to be smart as well as tough. If we better managed our current resources and only locked up those who posed a public safety risk, we would save millions of dollars."
Virtually all jails with a significant overcrowding problem have a lot of inmates who, as Tolson put it, "stay in jail because they do not have the money to get out." Statewide, according to Dr. Tony Fabelo, overall jail population increased 18.6% between 2000-2007, while the number of pretrial detainees increased 49.2% over the same period. Harris County led the state's largest counties with the biggest increase both in raw numbers and by percentage.
Tolson's piece constitutes perhaps the most cogent discussion I've seen of this subject in the MSM, and the public would be well served by further discussion of who's in the Harris County jail who doesn't need to be there.
Kuff has more, and I've written about pretrial detention a lot in the past, including the problem specifically in Harris County, so rather than continue I'll refer readers to prior, related Grits posts:
- Pretrial detention, unnecessary incarceration driving Texas jail overcrowding
- Bail blunders boost bulging Harris jail population
- Extra bail conditions: When tough on crime means tough on taxpayers
- Should county government subsidize bail bond companies?
- Lack of counsel, information are bail barriers
- Harris County detains low-risk offenders for no reason
- Homegrown Harris Jail Jam: Jailed probationers swell inmate numbers
- Harris revokes probation most among big Texas counties
- What are they reading at the Harris County probation department?
- Harris County officials wrongly think they'll build their way out of jail overcrowding