Class Fights Harris County Bail System

     HOUSTON (CN) — Texas’ most populous county jails misdemeanor arrestees who can’t afford bail, an unconstitutional “wealth-based” system that leaves poor people languishing behind bars, an inmate claims in a federal class action.
     Maranda Lynn ODonnell, a 22-year-old mother of a 4-year-old daughter, was arrested May 18 on a charge of driving on a suspended license and booked into Harris County Jail.
     The jail in downtown Houston is the biggest in Texas and third biggest in the United States. “It books on average 120,000 individuals per year and 330 individuals per day,” the complaint states.
     The crowded jail and unconstitutional bail system often prove to be a deadly combination, ODonnell claims in her May 19 lawsuit.
     “Between 2009 and 2015, 55 human beings died while in pretrial custody in the Harris County Jail,” the complaint states.
     ODonnell says she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail set by Harris County’s bail schedule, which sets predetermined amounts based on the charges.
     ODonnell gets federal subsidies to pay for food and she and her daughter live with a friend.
     “She recently obtained a job at a restaurant within the past few weeks, but she is worried that her current jailing will cause her to lose her job,” the complaint states.
     Court records show that ODonnell made bail after she filed the lawsuit.
     She sued Harris County, its Sheriff Ron Hickman and five magistrate judges who serve as probable cause hearing officers and determine bail for arrestees.
     The Department of Justice is investigating Hickman’s handling of the jail. Since Hickman took office in May 2015, four inmates died after they were assaulted by other prisoners in separate incidents, the Houston Chronicle reported.
     Patrick Joseph Brown, 46, died in the jail on April 4 from a brain hemorrhage about 28 hours after he was booked on a misdemeanor charge of stealing a guitar. Other inmates beat him in a crowded basement holding cell, the Chronicle reported.
     Hickman said in a news conference after Brown’s death that he doesn’t have enough personnel to check on inmates in cells and monitor footage from surveillance cameras fixed on holding cells because the jail is understaffed by “several hundred” detention officers, the newspaper reported.
     ODonnell says in her lawsuit that Harris County’s detention system is unconstitutionally rigged against poor people because magistrate judges set their bail with no consideration of whether they can afford it.
     She says jail staff assemble groups of 20 to 45 new arrestees throughout each day, many of them charged with minor misdemeanors, and trots them into a room at the jail for probable cause hearings conducted via video by a magistrate.
     The magistrates hold the hearings from a courtroom in the Harris County Criminal Courthouse, alongside prosecutors who ask the judge to find probable cause for the arrest and sometimes urge the judge to set bail higher than the rate set by the county’s schedule.
     “Harris County does not provide defense attorneys at this hearing. Almost one-third of Harris County arrestees lack a high school education and one in five have serious mental health problems,” the complaint states.
     The magistrates can recommend “personal bonds,” under which an inmate is released without having to post bail, but rarely do so because they are bound by the county’s strict bail guidelines, ODonnell says.
     “Only about 8 percent of misdemeanor arrestees were recommended for personal bonds in 2014. According to county policies, 92 percent of misdemeanor arrestees were deemed ineligible for such release,” ODonnell says, citing a 2014 Harris County pretrial services report.
     ODonnell claims the magistrates don’t even let defendants who say they can’t afford bail ask for a lower amount because the judges say the issue should be worked out in open court after the inmate is appointed a defense attorney.
     “On one recent occasion that is typical of standard policy, after a hearing officer made a bail decision according to the money bail schedule, the arrestee asked the hearing officer, ‘Can I say something?'” the complaint states.
     “The hearing officer responded, ‘You can talk to me all you want, but it’s not going to change the outcome. I’m setting it according to the schedule. Talk to your lawyer about it in the morning.'”
     ODonnell seeks class certification and a declaration that Harris County’s bail policy violates inmates’ constitutional rights.
     She is represented by Lexie White with Susman Godfrey in Houston and Alec Karakatsanis with Equal Justice Under Law, a Washington, D.C. firm that does pro bono work for poor people.
     The Harris County Sheriff’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.