HOUSTON (CN) – The man in charge of Texas’ busiest jail is a defendant in a federal class action attacking his county’s bail system, yet he sided with the plaintiffs Wednesday, testifying that most poor misdemeanor arrestees should be released from jail on no-fee bonds.
Just two months into his tenure, Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is standing at the crossroads of criminal justice reform and business as usual in the state’s most populous county with his thumb out, eager to help implement changes he says are long overdue.
Gonzalez took the stand Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal, gold-lined shoulder patches framing his crisp black service uniform, and maintained the unflappable demeanor that Houston, Harris County’s seat, came to expect during his three terms on the City Council.
“I personally don’t believe it’s a rational system,” Gonzalez told plaintiffs’ attorney Neal Manne about the county’s bail system. “When we look at equal protection, in my opinion it should be equal protection for everyone, but statistically speaking it doesn’t bear that out. When I see that many of the people inside the jail, on any given day an average of 9,000, are just poor and can’t bond out, and I look at racial disparities, disproportionally communities of color, then that’s very concerning to me.”
John O’Neill with Winston Strawn in Houston is part of a team defending 15 of the county’s 16 criminal court judges against the class action, in which lead plaintiff Maranda ODonnell claims the judges and five hearing officers that oversee probable cause hearings unconstitutionally set bail for misdemeanor defendants with no regard to their ability to pay.
O’Neill hugged a podium and leaned into a microphone Wednesday, questioning Gonzalez about the actual impact of misdemeanor defendants on the jail that is often close to its state-mandated inmate capacity.
“The jail has capacity for 10,000 prisoners and you run sometimes at 9,700 prisoners. Is it fair to say that only about 380 to 500 of those are misdemeanor offenders?” O’Neill said.
“That sounds about right,” Gonzalez said.
“Generally the misdemeanor pretrial defendants make up only 3 to 5 percent of the jail population, and a substantial number are in progress, being processed and will be out within two days?” O’Neill said.
Fifteen people died in the custody of the Harris County Sheriff’s Office in 2016, and critics say the crowded jail puts inmates in danger. But O’Neill challenged that conventional wisdom.
“That is a terrible tragedy. But to be fair the death rate inside the jail is actually less than the death rate of people outside the jail,” he said.
Judge Rosenthal stopped him: “Are you arguing it’s safer in jail because you can’t afford to get out?”
O’Neill answered, “No I’m arguing that it’s totally incorrect to indicate the jail is an extremely unsafe place, that the death rate itself shows that it’s not true.”
Gonzalez conceded to O’Neill that he believes the jail provides adequate medical care to inmates, 30 percent of whom, he said, have a medical or mental health issue.
But the sheriff said jail isn’t an ideal place to get medical treatment.