Texas’ largest county passes historic criminal justice reform

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Harris County passed a historic criminal justice system reform thanks to a commissioner’s court vote on Tuesday. County Judge Lina Hidalgo and others successfully voted on an agreement that will allow roughly 85 percent of misdemeanor defendants to be released from jail without paying bail, a sweeping reform that would essentially end poverty jailing in the Houston area for petty crimes and misdemeanors.  

“No misdemeanor defendant will be locked up simply because they don’t have the money to pay bail,” according to a county fact sheet on the new measures. “This [new policy] frees up law enforcement resources to address violent crimes.”

Under the old system, people with means posted bail while those with low incomes served jail time, some even admitting guilt just to get out of jail. 

“It’s a new day in #HarrisCounty,” tweeted the Texas Organizing Project. “The misdemeanor #bailreform settlement is a watershed moment for civil rights & criminal justice reform.”

The progressive proposal stems from an April 2017 decision by a district judge that ruled Harris County’s bail system as unconstitutional. Earlier this year, Harris County judges reached an agreement to tackle poverty jailing by establishing a new system of misdemeanor criminal justice. 

After Tuesday’s successful vote, the reforms will now head to Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal for one final review. 

In 2017, Rosenthal’s court ruled overturned Harris County’s bail system, arguing in her decision that Harris County’s policy is “to detain indigent misdemeanor defendants before trial, violating equal protection rights against wealth-based discrimination and violating due process protections against pretrial detention.”

That ruling was upheld in an appeals court a year later with a three-judge panel reaffirming that Harris County’s bail system was an “instrument of oppression,” forcing Harris County justice officials to sit down and rework the way they treat misdemeanor defendants.

Policy guidance from the county, “today and going forward,’ includes: 

● A misdemeanor arrest no longer automatically results in a defendant being held in jail

● Most misdemeanor arrestees are released on personal recognizance bonds – they do not have to pay bail to be allowed to return to their daily lives as they await trial

● People arrested for violating court orders in family violence cases, certain assault cases, misdemeanor DWI, any new offense while on pre-trial release, and in other similar circumstances will face a judge to determine whether they should be held subject to bail.

Photo by Elizabeth Conley/Houston Chronicle

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