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For the past few years, Harris County has been working on a proposed agreement to fix its bail system. The Harris County Bail system was declared unconstitutional in 2016 after several plaintiffs filed lawsuits against the county for being jailed for low-level offenses. Hey called the judicial practices unconstitutional and protested ordering for the release of misdemeanor defendants within jail within 24 hours of being arrested. An appellate court later ruled for bail hearings to take place within two days of the arrest to allow defendants to argue for lower bonds.
What’s the current state of bail reform in Harris County?
In July 2019, officials in Harris county votes to finally settle the bail lawsuit that had been ongoing for nearly two years. The changes in the reform system implement a change that calls for rapid release of defendants who were arrested for misdemeanor offenders, with the exception of domestic violence offenses, or people who have had multiple DUIs. The law also forced the county to look into ways to make the pretrial process more inclusive to everyone involved. They began initiating weekly designated hours for defendants to appear in front of a judge to reschedule appearances without the risk of returning to jail.
The county also implemented a risk-assessment system that determines the likelihood that a defendant will commit a similar crime if they are released from jail. There’s a lot of debate on the accuracy of these tools and whether or not the information they produce is reliable.
What does the Harris County case mean for the future of bail reform?
During the trial, evidence came out with incriminating findings that defendants were unfairly treated during their bail lawsuits. The Harris County decree includes language that reads like a warning for others who might continue to ignore the ordinates set by the reform.
During the case, evidence can out that paying high bail amounts doesn’t affect public safety or a defendant’s likelihood to show up for court appearances. In fact, they found that defendants were more likely to falsely plead guilty in order to be released from jail because they can’t afford the bail.
Criminal justice reform advocates say that the outcome of the case in Harris County could be a tipping point for many other counties across the country who want to see similar changes.
Some people do have their objections to the outcome. Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has publicly objected to the settlement because it doesn’t do enough to protect victim’s rights. She thinks the new system could put victims of abusers in danger by allowing offenders to continue committing crimes right after being jailed.
If you’ve been arrested for a crime in Houston, and are unsure about the circumstances around your bail, it’s time to contact an attorney who can help. Consulting a qualified and experienced attorney, instead of finding information online, can help you understand the unique details of your circumstances, and what it means for your case moving forward.