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Judge approves plan to reform Harris County’s bail system

HOUSTON – A federal judge has approved a plan aimed at reforming Harris County’s bail system, which had been declared unconstitutional.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a tweet Thursday that the county’s consent decree, which was submitted as part of a settlement to a lawsuit that has been in litigation since 2016, had been approved.

“I’m proud to preside over a County that is leading the nation in making our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, & more cost effective!” Hidalgo exclaimed in her tweet.

The lawsuit alleged that the county’s bail system kept people accused of low-level, often nonviolent, offenses in jail because they could not pay a bond, while those who were able to afford the bail were released.

In 2017, a federal judge ruled that the bail system violates the due process and equal protection provisions of the Constitution.

How does the proposed consent decree work?

Under the decree, someone arrested for a low-level, nonviolent misdemeanor would be issued a general order bond or a personal recognizance bond. They would then be given a court date and released.

Under the current proposal, there are provisions for more violent offenses, such as domestic violence and DUI cases, as well as offenders on bond who get hit with a new charge. In total, there are six categories for which being granted a PR bond would first be reviewed by a judge.

What critics have said

Critics of the proposal have said it goes too far and more provisions need to be added. Those in opposition have said the consent decree does not protect the public from people who are at high risk.

The proposal also allows a defendant to reset a court hearing up to two times, an ability critics warn will delay the legal process and lead to more money being spent, as a result.

Hidalgo’s statement

Hidalgo issued the following written statement after the ruling was handed down:

"For too long, residents in Harris County have been taken advantage of by a broken, unfair, and unconstitutional bail system. Today's decision by Judge Rosenthal puts to rest the arguments used to instill fear regarding impact of bail reform. We do not have to choose between protecting the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting public safety. In fact, by reforming our broken bail system, we are taking a step toward rebuilding trust between our system of justice and the residents it serves.

Under bail reform, the guilty will still be held accountable for their actions, but the accused won’t have their lives, livelihoods, and families torn apart because they are too poor to buy their freedom. As County Judge, I am proud to preside over a County that is leading the nation to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more cost effective. I want to thank Judge Rosenthal, the Judges of the Criminal Courts at Law, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and the many others who have worked so hard to improve our criminal justice system and for doing what is right."


Brandon Walker contributed to this report.


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