Thursday, May 19, 2016
Harris County Sheriff and Hearing Officers Sued over Bail Policies
Harris County, the Harris County Sheriff and Harris County Criminal Law Hearing Officers have been sued for their practice of jailing poor people who have been charged with low-level crimes because they cannot afford to pay a set monetary amount.
Lawyers with Equal Justice Under Law and the law firm Susman Godfrey represent Maranda Lynn O’Donnell, a 22-year-old woman charged with driving on an invalid license and being held on $2,500 bond at the Harris County Jail.
The lawsuit alleges that the Harris County Sheriff and Criminal Law Hearing Officers treat poor people differently than wealthy people when it comes to release after arrest. If a person has the ability to pay a money bail regardless of the risk the person presents to the community, that person is released automatically based upon the County’s bail schedule. A person who cannot pay is detained.
The lawsuit demands that the defendants stop using money bail to detain people without procedures that ensure consideration of the person’s ability to pay any monetary amount set.
According to the April 2016 Abbreviated Population Report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards over 68 percent of the people being held in the Harris County Jail were being held before resolution of their criminal case. On any given night over 500 people are held in the Harris County Jail on low-level offenses because they cannot afford to pay money bail.
The Harris County Jail has received attention for several deaths of people being held pretrial. Between 2009 and 2015, 55 people died in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial after being unable to pay money bail. Harris County Sheriff Hickman is also holding some people in jails in Beaumont and Texarkana due to overcrowding in the Harris County Jail system.
In April of this year Harris County received a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation to reform its criminal justice system. Reducing jail overcrowding is one of the county’s main goals for the grant.
Posted by Rebecca Bernhardt at 8:50 PM