Houston DA Doubles Down on Support for Bail Reform

HOUSTON (CN) – The Houston area’s top prosecutor sent her chief of staff to meet with local NAACP officials Thursday to assure them she supports bail reforms to keep poor misdemeanor arrestees out of jail, but she has concerns with a proposed settlement she says will endanger domestic violence victims.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal upended Harris County’s criminal justice system in April 2017 when she found its practice of using a fee schedule to set bail based on the charges favors those who can afford bail, and violates poor arrestees’ due process and equal protection rights.

Shortly after taking office in January 2017, Harris County DA Kim Ogg, a Democrat, came out in support of the class action. She said she agreed the county’s already overcrowded jail in downtown Houston should not be further crowded by people like lead plaintiff Maranda ODonnell.

ODonnell sued Harris County in May 2016, after she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of driving with an invalid license and a magistrate judge set her bail at $2,500.

ODonnell, 25, says her detention jeopardized a new restaurant job she needed to care for her young daughter.

She also sued all 16 of the county’s criminal court judges and five magistrate judges who set bond at probable cause hearings. The county lost despite spending $10 million on outside counsel.

After Democrats in the November 2018 elections swept out of office the 14 Republican judges who were defending the old fee-schedule bail system in court, the newcomers adopted new bail rules in January they took from an injunction Rosenthal had imposed in the case.

Under the new rules, all misdemeanor arrestees must be released on personal recognizance bonds, with no upfront fee required, as soon as practical and only certain groups of people—those arrested for violating protective orders, assaulting a family member, not showing up for court, or for DUIs—can be held longer than 48 hours for a bail hearing before a criminal court judge.

The rules are also included in a proposed settlement of the class action. But Ogg is now lobbying for some changes.

She warned Rosenthal in an Aug. 30 brief there is a “real danger of ‘exploding’ dockets” for her already overworked staff.

Her request for funding to hire 102 additional prosecutors was recently denied by Harris County Commissioners Court, the county’s executive board.

Ogg says in the brief the settlement would let judges excuse any defendant from ever having to appear in court, and allow defendants who know how to work the system to keep rescheduling hearings and “go an indefinite period” without attending court.

Ogg’s chief of staff Vivian King laid out those concerns Thursday before NAACP officials at the Houston branch’s headquarters, a converted home southeast of downtown.

King said there are now no low-level offenders like ODonnell in Harris County Jail.

But she said the dangers of the new system are exemplified by Alex Guajardo. A judge released Guajardo, 22, on a personal recognizance bond after he was charged with misdemeanor assault of his pregnant wife on July 31.

Though a magistrate judge had issued a protective order, ordering Guajardo to stay away from his wife, he allegedly stabbed her 20 times and killed her on Aug. 3.

King also said she and Ogg disagree with spending some of the $97 million estimated cost of the new bail system on Uber drivers to take poor defendants to court, part of the proposed settlement.

But King stressed that Ogg is in favor of bail reform.

“The only thing we disagree with is the [proposed] consent decree goes beyond the scope of the settlement,” she said.

Though the NAACP event was billed as a press conference, it turned into an informal meeting as local media did not attend.

Houston NAACP President James Douglas, wearing his trademark cowboy hat and boots, told King minority communities have a narrow window to get these criminal justice reforms right for Harris County, Texas’ most populous county with more than 4.5 million residents.

“President Trump is changing the federal courts,” Douglas said. “And we’re really here because we had a federal judge who was willing to stand up for us. People like her won’t be on the court much longer.”

“We are going to see different courts and a different attitude coming from the federal system. So we better try to get this fixed as quickly as we can,” added Douglas, former dean of Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law.

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