Federal Judge Rules Houston’s Bail System Likely Violates Rights of the Poor

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Advocates for ending cash bail systems for defendants charged with minor offenses, which disproportionately affect the poor and people of color, won an important court battle in Houston on Friday.


U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal determined that Harris County, TX’s bail policy violates constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection. Rosenthal ordered the county to start releasing indigent inmates in mid-May without bail pending trials over misdemeanor offenses, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The case was brought by Civil Rights Corps, Texas Fair Defense Project and Houston law firm Susman Godfrey on behalf all of the county’s indigent misdemeanor defendants. Among the plaintiffs is a single mother who was jailed for two days for driving without a license because she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail, the Associated Press noted.

Rosenthal found the plaintiffs’ argument credible that the cash bail system fails to consider a defendant’s ability to pay, therefore favoring the wealthy.

According to the Houston Press:

“Misdemeanor arrestees are often...people ‘living on the edge at the point in their lives that intersects with getting involved in an arrest,’” Judge Rosenthal wrote in closing. “In Harris County, they may be homeless. They may lack family, friends, and [people in their lives willing to bail them out]. Some are, no doubt, of bad reputation and present a risk of nonappearance or of new criminal activity. But they are not without constitutional rights to due process and the equal protection of the law.”

Civil Rights Corps lead attorney Alec Karakatsanis told the Press, “It’s very encouraging that the courts are starting to scrutinize these practices, which for so long have caused so much harm to impoverished people but have escaped any real scrutiny.”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, who promised to reform the bail system, called Rosenthal’s preliminary injunction a “watershed moment in Harris County criminal-justice history,” according to the AP.


Studies of Texas’ justice system reached similar conclusions as national studies on the cash bail issue. The Texas Judicial Council found that last year about 25% of 41,000 inmates awaiting trial in the state posed little threat to the public. Yet they were jailed because they had no money for bail.

The number of people held in detention in Texas while awaiting trial has jumped to 75% in the past 25 years, a 43% increase during that period.


According to the Prison Policy Initiative in a report last year, just under 650,000 defendants were detained in 3,000 local jails across the country. Of those, 70% were being held pending trial, Fusion’s Nidhi Prakash reported.

“One reason that the unconvicted population in the U.S. is so large is because our country largely has a system of money bail, in which the constitutional principle of innocent until proven guilty only really applies to the well off,” the Prison Policy Initiative noted in a report titled “Detaining the Poor.”


That report said:

In fact, the typical Black man, Black woman, and Hispanic woman detained for failure to pay a bail bond were living below the poverty line before incarceration. The income data reveals just how unrealistic it is to expect defendants to be able to quickly patch together $10,000, or a portion thereof, for a bail bond. The median bail bond amount in this country represents eight months of income for the typical detained defendant.


In Harris County, the AP reported, judges will soon begin to use different methods to assess risk before trial. That will help courts decide if defendants are low-risk, and if they are, quickly remove them from of the system.

Weekend Editor, Splinter