HOUSTON (CN) – The CEO, district attorney and sheriff of Harris County, Texas, all agree its bail system needs to be reformed, siding with a federal class action that’s pushing to keep poor people accused of petty crimes out of its jail.
Harris County DA Kim Ogg, a Democrat, took office in January following a campaign in which she promised to focus tax dollars on prosecuting violent criminals instead of low-level offenders, especially marijuana possession cases.
Early this month, she rolled out at a diversion program in which people caught with less than four ounces of marijuana can take a four-hour drug education class to avoid being charged.
She estimates the program will keep 10,000 people annually out of Harris County Jail, which has been plagued in recent years by overcrowding that critics say is partly to blame for the deaths of 55 people in pretrial custody from 2009 to 2015.
The average jail population in January was 9,059 inmates, and an average of 6,920, or 76 percent, were awaiting adjudication of their cases, according to a county report.
Harris County, its sheriff, its 16 criminal court judges and five magistrate judges are facing a federal class action, accusing them of unconstitutionally jailing misdemeanor defendants solely because they can’t pay bail, which the plaintiffs argue violates their Eighth Amendment rights against excessive bail and 14th Amendment equal protection rights.
On Friday, Ogg joined a growing chorus of Harris County and Texas officials, some of whom are defendants in the case, who believe the county’s bail system should be reformed to grant more low-level defendants no-fee bonds, also called personal recognizance bonds.
“Holding unadjudicated misdemeanor offenders in the Harris County Jail solely because they lack the money or other means of posting bail is counterproductive to the goal of seeing that justice is done. We do not want to be complicit in a system that incentivizes presumptively innocent people to plead guilty merely to expedite their release from custody,” Ogg wrote Friday in an amicus brief for case.
Harris County Judge Ed Emmett – who is the county’s CEO, not a judicial officer – said at a recent county commissioners meeting, "I don't think anybody in Harris County should stay in jail just because they can't afford to pay bail.”
Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who replaced his predecessor Ron Hickman as a defendant in the lawsuit when he took office in January, and will testify in the case, stated in an affidavit, “I believe that the current operation of the money bail system, including the sheriff’s active participation in that system, violates the United States Constitution.”
Texas State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, who has held that office since 1983 and chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, said in a joint letter also signed by Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis in February, “It is our position that the Harris County bail system blatantly violates the rights and freedoms protected under the U.S. Constitution by creating one system of justice for the wealthy and an unjust one for the poor.”