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Officials ready to settle but still at odds over Harris County bail system

HOUSTON – A federal class-action lawsuit claims the Harris County bail system is unconstitutional and unfairly targets people who can't pay a bond. 

Harris County's misdemeanor bail bond system was declared unconstitutional by federal Judge Lee Rosenthal in 2017. 

On Monday, the judge heard final arguments in a proposed settlement to replace the old system and end a long-running lawsuit for bond reform. But there are still bond disagreements over what the settlement should look like. 

Supporters said the old bail system punishes the poor and that some misdemeanor defendants who are unable to pay bond while awaiting trial have simply languished in jail, or even pleaded guilty simply to get out. 

"There are 8,000 human beings in the Harris County Jail as we talk. Many of them are there because they can't pay bail," said Alec Karakatsanis, the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corp.

A settlement to the lawsuit agreed to and approved by Harris County commissioners requires most misdemeanor defendants to be released on personal recognizance bonds that don't require payment. That's the practice currently being followed by the county's misdemeanor courts. 

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis and County Sheriff Ed Gonzales are supporters.

"Somebody's income ought not to determine whether or not they're innocent. The ability to pay bail does not make a community safer. It's an old antiquated system that has lasted for decades in Harris County," Ellis said. 

But critics, including District Attorney Kim Ogg and Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, said that doesn't do enough to protect the public.

An example brought up in court on Monday was the case of 17-year-old Brandon Bell.

Bell, who jumped bail on a criminal trespass charge without being penalized, went on an alleged crime spree that ended when he allegedly shot and seriously wounded a Houston police officer. 

"That person got their bond on automatic basis cause underlying factors of the case about how there had been serious allegations in the system that were not addressed. A judge should be looking at these," said Harris County Commissioner Jack Cagle, of Precinct 4.

The proposed settlement requires misdemeanor suspects charged in crimes such as family violence or multiple DWIs must appear before a magistrate judge who can decide to hold them without bail. 

The settlement also includes funding by the county to provide defendants' legal representation expands court hours and sets up a text message reminder system to ensure defendants appear for court dates. 

Rosenthal has already given the agreement preliminary approval. She did not indicate today when she would issue her final ruling.