High Court Rejects Texas County’s Bid to Stop Release of Poor Inmates

HOUSTON (CN) – The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday denied Harris County’s request for a stay of a federal judge’s order for it to promptly release misdemeanor defendants who cannot afford cash bail from jail.

Harris County asked the Supreme Court to stay the order late Tuesday after the Fifth Circuit on Tuesday morning lifted a stay on U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal’s ruling that found the county’s bail system unconstitutionally jails misdemeanor arrestees only because they cannot afford to post bond.

Justice Clarence Thomas denied the county’s stay application without explanation Wednesday. Thomas handles appeal requests from the New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit.

Rosenthal issued a preliminary injunction ordering Harris County to start releasing misdemeanor defendants within 24 hours of their arrest on unsecured bonds, with no cash up front, starting on May 15.

But an appeal from Harris County prompted the Fifth Circuit to stay the order on May 12.

The Harris County Sheriff’s Office said it will start releasing misdemeanor arrestees on Wednesday. Up to 177 of them qualify for release under Rosenthal’s order.

Those detainees account for 2 percent of the county jail’s 8,800 inmates, the sheriff’s office told local media Tuesday.

In its appeal to the U.S Supreme Court, Harris County argued that Rosenthal’s order to “immediately release without sufficient surety untold numbers of potentially dangerous arrestees is certain to cause irreparable harm.”

The county, its 16 criminal court judges and five hearing officers who set bail at probable cause hearings are defendants in the class action that appears to be headed to trial as the county’s attorneys claim Rosenthal’s order conflicts with Texas law, which gives judges discretion to set cash bail.

Lead plaintiff Maranda ODonnell, 23, sued Harris County in May 2016 after she was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of driving with an invalid license and held for two days in jail after a magistrate judge set her bail at $2,500.

She says her detention prevented her from working a new restaurant job she needed to care for her young daughter.

ODonnell is represented by the Austin-based Texas Fair Defense Project, the Civil Rights Corps, a Washington firm, and the Houston firm Susman Godfrey.

Harris County, the third most populous in the United States, has spent more than $2 million on outside counsel defending against the lawsuit, despite reforms it has in the works that its attorneys say will moot ODonnell’s claims and make the county the “gold standard” for bail administration in a nation increasingly aware of the harmful effects of incarceration.

On July 1, the county will launch a risk-assessment tool, a computer program that will rate a defendant’s risk of committing more crimes or not showing up for court while out on bail, and make bond recommendations within 30 minutes of an arrest.

Also that day, the county will start a pilot program where public defenders advise defendants at probable cause hearings, where bail is set.

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