Tuesday, February 05, 2019

Guerra-Thompson: Harris County bail compromise still discriminates against poor people

Sandra Guerra Thompson, Director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law School, is unimpressed with the proposed bail settlement in Harris County, saying it continues to discriminate against the poor. Grits received this email from her this morning and am reprinting it with her permission:
I’ve spent much less time on the bail issue of late, but I have made some inquiries recently about the new Harris County policies.  Much to my chagrin, the county has tweaked the system to avoid constitutional issues, but in other respects the system still stinks.   Here’s my take: 
Under the old system, money bonds were set across the board almost immediately after people were arrested. Those with the money would bond out. The poorest of the poor would be stuck in jail.  These were the people who would be assessed using a risk assessment instrument and go before the magistrate without counsel where the magistrates would almost always completely ignore the recommendations of pretrial services (based on the risk-assessment instrument). 
You know well the problems with the use of money bonds that are imposed without a risk assessment.  Best practices call for universal risk assessment, and, obviously, decisions should be based (at least in part) on these assessments. 
Under the “new and improved” bail policy, money bonds are still set across the board, so the bail bond industry still thrives as usual. The difference is that now the poorest of the poor who are charged with misdemeanors (with a few exceptions for crimes of violence) will fall into a “presumptive personal bond” category. This means they are no longer assessed for risk by pretrial services, and the magistrate will simply release them on personal bonds. 
The result is this:  fewer people than ever are being assessed for risks. Plus, the unfairness persists. People with money are still released much sooner because they have money, usually within 12 hours. And, the poorest will be out within about 48. And why should people with access to money have to pay hundreds of dollars in bondsmen fees when those who don’t come up with the money (under the same bond schedule) will be released on personal bonds? It makes no sense other than to perpetuate the same money bond schedule while appeasing the federal judge.’ 
There is some good news. At the last County Commissioner’s meeting, they voted to bring in some experts, probably from the Pretrial Justice Institute, to assess their system and give advice for improvement. But for now, I remain disappointed.

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