Harris County approves of settlement in bail system lawsuit

HOUSTON – Officials have approved a settlement in a federal lawsuit over the bail system in Harris County that ensures most people accused of misdemeanor offenses don't languish in jail.

The bail system in Harris County had been deemed unconstitutional by a federal judge following a 2016 lawsuit alleging poor misdemeanor defendants remained jailed because of their poverty.

Harris County commissioners Tuesday approved the settlement by a 3-2 vote, with the two Republicans on the court voting against it.

The settlement ensures most people charged with misdemeanor offenses would be released within hours of arrest and would get help to ensure they attend future court appearances. 

"This landmark agreement is a historic step toward building a fair, effective criminal justice system that can act as a model for the nation," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. "This settlement is smart -- it ensures that we are spending our resources on real public safety, rather than filling our jail with people who are only there because they're poor. Today marks a proud moment on our path toward justice." 

"This settlement is a strike against the new Jim Crow and a defining moment in the nationwide struggle to end an oppressive system of mass incarceration that has unfairly harmed communities of color for decades," said Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis. "If Harris County, Texas -- the third largest county in the country -- can take such a bold, transformative step toward leveling a two-tiered system of injustice that privileged the wealthy over the poor, it can be done anywhere." 

"I am pleased that this lawsuit is now behind us, defending it was unnecessary and wasted millions that could otherwise go to supporting crime victims. We can now focus on Harris County becoming a national leader in civil rights reform," said Harris County Precinct Two Commissioner Adrian Garcia. "As a lifelong law enforcement professional, I know that the best way to keep our county safe is to have a multi-tiered approach that allows our district attorney and law enforcement to concentrate on the most dangerous while enhancing a criminal justice system that is fair and just." 

Hidalgo said that the cost is an estimate but may be close $50 million to $97 million. 

“To put that into context, it is a drop in the bucket in comparison to the societal costs of an unconstitutional system where you have someone who was forced to plead guilty because there was no other way to get out of jail, even if they were innocent,” Hidalgo said. 

The cost wasn’t the only concern for County Commissioner Jack Cagle.

“We are talking about a lot of money for this, but nothing when we are talking about balance in judicial reform. We are neglecting the civil rights of people who are victims in the community,” Cagle said. 

Judge Lee Rosenthal, who is handling the lawsuit, could give final approval at an Aug. 21 court hearing. 

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