More than 15,000 people were collared in Harris County for misdemeanors in the final months of 2010, but 70 percent of white inmates were released on bond before trial, compared to 50 percent or less of Hispanics and African-Americans, a new report critical of detention practices shows.
White criminal defendants also generally had to pay lower bonds for their freedom, according to a report released by the Houston Ministers Against Crime. The group of politically connected pastors claims aggressively locking up those who have been accused — but not yet convicted — for crimes like fighting and trespassing costs taxpayers big bucks and harms poor communities "struggling under the ongoing financial crisis."
Last week alone, more than 840 people accused of misdemeanors remained jailed at a cost of about $38,000, or $45 per person daily plus processing expenses, Harris County Sheriff's Office records show. Many are poor and unwilling or unable to pay fees of $200 or less to a bondsman.
Houston Ministers Against Crime released the new report to urge county judges and commissioners to correct a racial and socioeconomic imbalance they claim hurts poor people accused of crimes as well as others.
"Due to widespread economic woes, many of our citizens are unable to raise the money necessary to post bonds on even relatively minor cases," the report says. "Even while presumed innocent, they remain in custody as their jobs are lost and their financial troubles worsen. This hardship further undermines their families and communities."
58 percent of the county's 9,700 current jail inmates remain "pretrial," the week's statistics show. Among them are disabled adults, teenagers, the mentally ill, substance abusers and first-time offenders who often get mixed in with hard-core felons.
Judges alone could decide to allow more misdemeanor and other nonviolent criminal defendants to remain free before trial if unable to post bond, but Harris County jurists rarely use so-called personal recognizance bonds, other records show.
Harris County District Judge Belinda Hill, the newly elected administrative district judge, said a judge-led group already is collecting information on pretrial detention and she'd like to expand it to include community members.
"This is an important area that judges have begun evaluating and will continue to do so," she said.
sending indigent defendants, predominantly black or brown, to county jail for lengthy stays before they can contest charges in court. Many of them are charged with nonviolent misdemeanors that could have been handled with a citation and court summons rather than jail. These defendants often spend more time behind bars than the sentences for their offenses would mandate. Innocent inmates are pressured to plead guilty simply to get out of jail.
Although the U.S. Supreme Court requires that bail decisions should be based on the risk factor posed by a defendant to the public and the individual's financial resources, in Harris County in 2009, magistrates lowered bond amounts for financial reasons less than 10 percent of the time. Courts in Travis County, which has a population much smaller than Harris County's, granted more than 18,000 personal recognizance bonds, roughly three times the number approved here.
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