Officials in Harris County agreed in July to make changes to the bail bond system that they believed could help prevent the disenfranchisement of low-income individuals. Unfortunately, some county officials and other groups are speaking out against these measures.

An ongoing lawsuit that began in 2016 was settled by Harris County commissioners on July 30, and a series of policy reforms were adopted. The commissioners themselves were divided on the proposed changes, and the measures were passed with a 3-2 vote.

With these new policies in effect, the vast majority of people being arrested for misdemeanor crimes would be eligible to seek release on an automatic, no-cash pretrial bond. This would be evaluated based on a defendant’s potential risk to society, or their likelihood to skip future court dates. In support of the changes, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia hailed the changes as a historic move. 

In opposition to the move, nine separate Harris County groups and officials including Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack, and District Attorney Kim Ogg filed amicus briefs and written opposition statements against the proposed settlement. Concerns over public safety, violations of state law, and an undue burden on taxpayers were all cited as reasons to reject the settlement. A hearing to determine a final ruling has been scheduled for Sept. 19.

Mario Garza, the president of the Harris County Professional Bondsmen Association, a bail bond association which submitted an amicus brief alongside county officials, firmly believes that the cash bail bond system is an effective way of encouraging defendants to attend court dates. According to Mr. Garza, the bond process, and more specifically the involvement of a signed document and financial responsibility is an effective way of encouraging individuals to return on their assigned court date.

Terms of Settlement

In April 2017, the chief district judge of the U.S. District Court of the Southern District of Texas, Lee Rosenthal, determined that Harris County’s bail bond system was unconstitutional. More specifically, the practice of jailing people for being unable to afford bail violated their guarantees of due process.

Although the county immediately appealed the ruling, the election of new officials to judge and commissioner seats heralded a shift in policy, and work on a settlement with the plaintiffs began. Within a few short months, the bail bond policies of the county were changed, and about 85% of those arrested on misdemeanors started to be released pretrial on unsecured personal bonds.

This new no-cash system is not available for people who are arrested for certain crimes, including domestic violence or for a second arrest related to driving while intoxicated. In these situations, a hearing before a judicial officer is required before bond is officially determined.

In the wake of the 2017 federal ruling, Harris County also started implementing changes to its bail practices under what is known as Local Rule 9. Under the requirements of this rule, secured money bail must not be a requirement of pretrial release before determining a person’s ability to pay. Also, all misdemeanor arrestees are now expected to be released on a personal bond as soon as is practical following an arrest, with only a few exceptions.

Concerns Over Public Safety

Some opponents of the change have begun to voice their concerns over the terms of this new policy. With worries about the lack of fairness towards victims of crime, and the cost to the taxpayer associated with soon to be implemented initiatives, the opposition is working to shift focus away from the financial situation of criminals, and towards the overall burden being placed on the community.

Citing recent statistics in local communities, members of the opposition group have pointed out that from Feb. 15 to Aug. 14 – there were 241 incidents of breaking and entering, followed closely by 213 incidents of vehicle theft. Under the newly implemented rules for Harris County, individuals charged with breaking and entering would not be eligible for no-cash bonds, but those caught burglarizing a vehicle would immediately qualify.

In defense of the reforms, Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has insisted that there is no real evidence that the cash bail system has had a direct impact on public safety. Instead, he has cited a study conducted at the University of Pennsylvania which concluded that detaining individuals ahead of a trial date has led to an increased likelihood that they will commit further crimes at a later date.

As parties interested in the course of the proceedings wait patiently for the date of the final hearing, strong opinions from both sides continue to emerge regarding the costs and benefits of the proposed changes.