New Report Makes Case for Providing Defense Lawyers at Harris County Bail Hearings in Order to Reduce Costs of Unnecessary Pretrial DetentionAUSTIN, TX – The Texas Fair Defense Project today released a report that details how Harris County’s reliance on bail schedules, limited use of personal bonds, and practice of conducting bail hearings without the participation of defense counsel lead to the unnecessary pretrial detention of poor people solely because they cannot afford financial bail.In the report, Depenalizing Poverty: A Proposal for Improving Harris County Bail Policies, TFDP recommends that defense counsel be provided to poor people at initial bail hearings in order to reduce the personal and financial costs associated with incarcerating people who have not been convicted of a crime. Almost 60% of the inmates in the Harris County Jail are awaiting trial. Detaining these individuals costs Harris County taxpayers over $234,000 per day.Under the Texas Constitution, almost every person accused of a crime is entitled to have a judge set bail to secure their appearance in court while charges are pending. Individuals who cannot afford to post bail in the amount set in their case remain incarcerated prior to trial, even if they are charged with a relatively minor offense and pose little risk to the community.Although federal and state law requires courts to consider an individual’s financial resources when setting the amount of bail, in order to avoid the pretrial detention of people solely because they are poor, magistrates in Harris County set bail using a standardized bail schedule that does not consider an individual’s ability to pay. Bail is set at hearings where poor people appear alone in front of a magistrate and prosecutor, before a defense lawyer is appointed to represent them.“Defense attorneys can help arrested individuals understand the factors relevant to a bail determination and present evidence supporting a lower bail amount or release on personal bond,” said Susanne Pringle, TFDP Staff Attorney and author of the report.In a study conducted in Baltimore, defendants with attorneys at their bail hearings were more than twice as likely to be released on personal bond than were defendants without attorneys. The average bail for represented defendants who did not qualify for personal bond was $500 less than the average bail set for defendants who didn’t have defense counsel.“Having a defense lawyer at your bail hearing can determine whether you keep your freedom while you face a criminal accusation, or spend months in jail before you’ve been convicted of any crime,” said Pringle.Pretrial detention has consequences long after the pretrial period. People who can’t afford to post bond may lose their jobs, housing, and custody of their children. Multiple studies also show that individuals who are detained prior to trial are more likely to be convicted and, if convicted, to receive longer sentences than individuals who can afford to post bond.“People in Harris County are being convicted of crimes because they're poor,” said Andrea Marsh, TFDP’s Executive Director. “They’re in pretrial detention because they're poor, and they're more likely to be convicted because in they’re in pretrial detention.”
The Texas Fair Defense Project (TFDP) is a nonprofit organization that works to improve the fairness of Texas’s criminal courts and ensure that all Texans have access to justice. TFDP focuses on improving the public defense system and challenging policies that create modern-day debtors’ prisons filled with poor people who cannot afford to pay commercial bond fees and post-conviction fines and costs.TFDP won a U.S. Supreme Court victory in Rothgery v. Gillespie County, a 2008 decision holding that the constitutional right to counsel attaches at the initial bail hearing held within 48 hours of an individual’s arrest. TFDP also recently settled a civil rights lawsuit that challenged practices that denied poor people the right to counsel in pretrial criminal proceedings in Williamson County, after receiving a favorable ruling from the Texas Supreme Court in Heckman v. Williamson County.A copy of Depenalizing Poverty: A Proposal for Improving Harris County Bail Policies can be obtained at http://bit.ly/1j5uhZc.Additional information about TFDP is available at www.texasfairdefenseproject.org.