HOUSTON – A panel of judges for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recently heard arguments as part of a federal lawsuit involving Harris County’s embattled bail system.
The lawsuit accuses the county of having an unconstitutional bail system that ensures those without money remain in jail prior to trial while those with means are able to secure their release.
“This is all about our protection under our federal constitution,” said Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who supports the lawsuit and questions why the county has spent roughly $4 million fighting the case. “We were locking up poor people and letting people out who had money. We cannot have a society where, if you have money, you can do whatever you want to do.”
The recent arguments before the Fifth Circuit involved an order that arose from this lawsuit: A federal court chief judge in Houston ordered the county to make changes to its bail system while the lawsuit winds its way through the legal process. The order states defendants charged with misdemeanor crimes are to be released from jail within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of whether they are able to afford bail. The exceptions to this order are those defendants wanted in another jurisdiction, those with immigration holds, those accused of violating family violence protective orders or those on a mental health hold.
“An indigent defendant’s inability to pay secured money bail cannot be the basis for the sheriff to continue to detain that defendant,” the judge’s order reads.
Since the judge’s order was issued, many misdemeanor defendants are being released on unsecured bonds, meaning, they do not have to pay any money to secure their release but could be sued for the full amount if they fail to show up for court. Other misdemeanor defendants are released on personal bonds.
The new system does have some people concerned who have reported domestic violence.
“He just started walking and yelling and cussing and screaming,” said Gail White, who doesn't remember exactly what started the argument with her then-boyfriend, Robert Wayne Hill.