HOUSTON – Federal Judge Lee Rosenthal found out more than a year ago that the county kept too many poor defendants behind bars simply because they couldn't afford to post bond.
Rosenthal ordered that misdemeanor defendants have to be released within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of their ability to pay, which means thousands have been released on unsecured bonds.
Critics of the order contend that's caused chaos in the courts, with defendants often failing to show up for the court.
“The data unequivocally shows that the preliminary injunction has resulted in skyrocketing, unsustainable and troubling failure-to-appear rates in Harris County," said Assistant Harris County Attorney Melissa Spinks, who is contesting the order.
And the county-compiled statistics over the last year have shown a steadily increasing bond-forfeiture rate.
The most recent data, released in May, show that between June 2017 and April 2018 defendants released on unsecured bonds either forfeited them or had them revoked. That is a rate of just under 48 percent.
But plaintiffs' attorney Neal Manne, who sued the county to change the system, said those statistics have been massaged to inflate the no-shows.
"The statistics that are being touted by the county are completely fraudulent. They’re using data they’ve made up, it’s not accurate, the problem they claim exists does not exist, and Judge Rosenthal is going to get evidence on that from us," Manne said.
The attorneys contend the statistics have been systematically skewed by misdemeanor judges who make showing up for court more difficult for defendants by setting hearings a day after their release.
Both sides will meet with Rosenthal on June 14 to discuss the current order suggested by the fifth circuit.