Monday, August 05, 2019

Harris County bail-reform settlement a landmark defeat of Texas bail-industry lobby

There once was a county named Harris 
Whose bail system left them embarrassed
Then judges were sued
And elections did lose
So now lo and behold they can settle this!

The bail settlement in Harris County may not be as important, when viewed through an historical lens, as Brown vs. Board of Education, despite Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis' grandiose declaration to that effect. But it's still a Very Big Deal, and the first domino to fall in what will ultimately conclude with a 5th Circuit (or US Supreme Court) decision governing pretrial release of criminal defendants in Texas.

Harris County judges have enacted a "new policy of automatic, no-cash pretrial release for about 85% of low-level defendants," reported the Texas Tribune

Art by Grits. Click to enlarge.
The settlement news warms the heart of this aging polemicist. Excessive pretrial detention in Houston was one of this blog's earliest hobby horses, presaging many of the debates which ended up resolved through federal litigation nearly a decade-and-a-half later. For example, check out a series of Grits posts on the topic rounded up in 2005 after the Harris Co. probation department began using them as training materials. Most of those critiques would remain salient until well after the just-settled litigation got serious, at which point the county began to implement more significant changes. At the time, though, there were 1,900 people sleeping on the jail floor due to overcrowding, so in a way, the issue was even more pressing back then.

Which is why it's worth recognizing that it took the federal courts to accomplish these changes that every expert who ever looked at Harris County's system had been advising for more than a decade. For whatever reason, whoever won elections, red or blue, there was never any appetite for serious bail reform through the political process. Someone had to sue, and win, to get judges to stop ordering bail for most misdemeanor defendants. (Many of the reasons for that are specific to Houston; your mileage may vary in other jurisdictions.)

Another notable point: At the commissioners court, as at the Texas Legislature, bail bondsmen found champions but could not sustain a majority after an informed debate. That's my big takeaway from those two, recent bail fights, one where reformers lost and one where they prevailed: At both the state and local level, bail bondsmen have shown they can be beaten. They had an impressive track record before this year, and the first half of 2019 may have finally demonstrated some chinks in their armor.

Here's why I disagree with Rodney Ellis that this litigation settlement is as important as Brown vs. Board of Education: While it resolves the underlying issues, it also robbed the 5th Circuit (and/or SCOTUS) of the opportunity to set a baseline that applied to all Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippi jurisdictions. Instead, the settlement terms only apply to Harris County and at most are advisory recommendations everywhere else.

So it will be some other county currently being sued - probably Dallas, I'm told by attorneys involved in the litigation - which ends up setting binding precedent for Texas courts, particularly with regard to setting bail in felony cases.

Once that happens, the Texas Legislature will be in a much better position to know what bail-reform legislation should look like when they come back in 2021.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

We need real law enforcement with common sense. Through out all the pages and pages of rules and regulations the "Court" uses and redo the laws in common English that the population can understand. The Courts and their procedure has changed, causing everyone coming into the Court guilty until proven innocent. Attorney's are no longer educated to protect and defend innocent clients, it's all about the money & power!

President Trump can vouch for that and so can our new Supreme Judge Bret.

Corporate Judges & Attorney's have no right to persecute innocent American people.

Gunny Thompson said...

From Unfiltered Minds of Independent Thinkers of the 3rd Grade Dropout Section:

"Solutions To Our Problems Are An Inside Job"

While at first blush it may seem as if the proposed settlement agreement is an answer to many problems associated with a Racist, Fascist System that operates to the benefit "Grifters" who extort millions from many whom are wrongfully and maliciously prosecuted. The proposed settlement does attempt to deal with a fraction of conditions that must be addressed.

While the proposed settlement which took a out-of-state group to bring the complaint is a start, there are additional solutions that must be considered, such as:

1) Establishing a permanent ombudsman system that investigate and resolve
complaints of inmates. Currently there is not a system in place to officially
resolve complaints of those incarcerated. Inmates, in an attempt to resolve
their complaints by reducing those complaints in writing are not recognized
and/or ignored, no docket report are made of their concerns.

2) Currently, within the judicial system, Texas is one of four states that treat 17-
yr-olds as adults while not being allowed to vote, purchase cigarettes or
alcohol or to enlist in the military, without consent of a parent or guardian,
among other things; and

3) Additionally, in the interest of justice, court appointed attorneys must be
monitored to assure that they are effectively representing their clients.and are
limited to the appointments represented.
The above solutions are not meant to be complete, but are offered as a suggestion that the problem is not just the bail system alone that determine the fairness of a judicial system The system as a whole must be reorganized to reflect a fair judicial system in the true interest of one that provides due process in accordance with the Constitution

Anonymous said...

Yes and now we have more repeat offenders than even pending crt date. And Judge Jordan and his $100 bonds are a joke. Harris County is the place to be if you're a criminal. Once again, call something racist and people get all upset and call for change. Harris county Judges have changed and it's pathetic. Many of those elected never even practiced criminal law but rode the D ticket with it"s call for "black girl magic" and anti-white, anti-Trump nonesense and it shows. These judges are unqualified, including our county judge. Pathetic

Gunny Thompson said...

Anon: 8/07/19 In this matter, can you offer a helpful constructive solution?? Whether you agree or disagree with the current panel of judges, you have a choice of making your selections none at the next election

For you information: As to Judge Jordan, you may reconsider your opinion of someone that is career military and member of the Judge Advocate General's Corps (JAG) and has been a Harris County criminal Attorney for several years. He and Harris County Commissioner Ellis were instrumental in the state adoption Sandra Bland legislation. "Just Saying"