A Houston federal judge has proposed allowing certain indigent offenders arrested for misdemeanors such as hot checks or drunk driving offenses to be released immediately from county jail like wealthier suspects who can afford a cash bond, according to a draft injunction in the landmark bail lawsuit against Harris County.
The proposed policy by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal would allow poor people arrested on certain offenses to be released immediately without posting money up front, just as individuals with access to money, arrested for the same offenses, are released immediately if they pay bail costs. But hearing judges will be permitted, under the proposed order, to set intentionally high bail amounts for poor offenders they believe will not show up for court or are likely to re-offend.
Based on instructions from an appeals court in New Orleans, the suggested order released Monday includes key provisions requested by lawyers for the indigent defendants who filed the 2016 class action suit and by the two criminal court at law judges who fully support that position.
But the order also takes into account concerns voiced by lawyers for the county and 14 court at law judges who oppose the lawsuit, calling for more judicial discretion of people who repeatedly fail to show up for court hearings or pick up new arrests after being released on cash-free bond.
Rosenthal’s suggested order says that if a judge determines that pretrial release is not sufficient to secure a defendant’s attendance in court, the judge can impose what lawyers have termed an “unaffordable” money bail.
The appeals court agreed with Rosenthal that the county had been discriminating on the basis of wealth but said the judge’s order had been overly broad. They instructed her to fine-tune the details of these releases.
Rosenthal explained in a seven-page order that the lawyers on both sides of the contentious two-year dispute have one week to confer with one another and provide feedback on her provisional order. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ordered that final revisions on the injunction be in place by the end of June.
The county has spent more than $6.1 million battling the lawsuit initially brought on behalf of Maranda ODonnell, a young mother who spent two days in jail because she could not afford $2,500 bail.
Gabrielle Banks covers federal court for the Houston Chronicle. Follow her on Twitter and send her tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.