United States

Discord Over Deal to Settle Houston-Area Bail Lawsuit

Both law enforcement officials and advocates in Texas' most populous county say they support efforts to change a bail system that was deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge and kept people arrested for lesser offenses languishing in jail.

But there is deep disagreement on whether a proposed settlement to a lawsuit over bail for misdemeanor defendants in Harris County, where Houston is located, is the best solution.

Criminal justice reform advocates and some public officials say the court-supervised plan, called a consent decree, will end policies that kept poor people and minorities locked up only because they couldn't afford to pay a few hundred dollars for their release and coerced many to plead guilty just to get out of jail.

But Harris County's top prosecutor, along with Houston's police chief, Texas' attorney general and others say the consent decree doesn't do enough to protect crime victims and will endanger public safety by freeing violent criminals.

Final arguments for and against the plan are scheduled for Monday before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, who will issue a final ruling later. She has already given it preliminary approval.

"The settlement is going to keep tens of thousands of people out of cages every year going forward, which is a really exciting prospect," said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that sued Harris County.

The plan stems from a 2016 lawsuit, which is similar to ones filed in other states and is a part of a broader push in the U.S. for changes to bail systems.

The nation's first law eliminating bail for suspects awaiting trial was set to go into effect in California this month, but it's on hold until voters next year decide whether to approve it. Others states that have passed bail reforms in recent years include Delaware and New Hampshire. In Chicago, changes to the Cook County bail system have prompted criticism from the city's mayor and police chief.

Harris County initially spent millions of dollars fighting the lawsuit. But after a Democratic wave in November 2018 that ushered in new county leadership, including new misdemeanor judges, both sides worked on a settlement.

In February, the misdemeanor judges put new rules in place stating that nearly all misdemeanor defendants would be released on personal bonds that require no money be paid, usually within a few hours after being taken into custody.

Under the new rules, people facing certain types of misdemeanors, including domestic violence and a second or subsequent driving while intoxicated charge, wouldn't be automatically released and must appear before a magistrate judge.

The consent decree would solidify these new rules.

The agreement also calls for the county to provide resources to help ensure misdemeanor defendants make their court hearings, including a text message reminder system.

But Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg and other law enforcement agencies allege the new rules have resulted in violent individuals being released and that this has carried over into felony cases.

"We are all for bail reform as long as it protects the public," Ogg said.

At a news conference Tuesday, Ogg, Houston police Chief Art Acevedo and others pointed to some recent cases in which people were killed or injured by defendants in misdemeanor and felony cases who were freed on bond by a judge.

One case officials have highlighted involves a suburban Houston man who is accused of fatally stabbing his pregnant wife in August after being released on a misdemeanor assault charge.

Acevedo has often taken to Twitter to criticize low or personal bonds for "serial violent offenders," saying in a May 21 tweet that the "actions of some members of the judiciary is placing our community at risk."

Franklin Bynum, one of the Harris County misdemeanor judges who helped settle the bail lawsuit, replied to Acevedo with a tweet saying that "opponents of reform use the same playbook every time, trying to look at a single case when the numbers overwhelmingly support that people do appear for court, that public safety is improved dramatically when we scale back the old coercive plea mill you fed."

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