Harris County, Texas, Jail: Debtor’s Prison?

Many people arrested in Harris County, Texas, are complaining about bail practices. Harris County, with a county seat of Houston, has the largest jail in Texas and third largest in the nation. Bail is determined by consulting a generic offense-based fee listing. Arrestees who can’t pay are detained. Usually within 24 hours, an inmate appears by videolink before a hearing officer. The officer determines if there was probable cause for the arrest and approves the original bail amount or even increases it. Arrestees are not allowed defense attorneys during this procedure, nor are they allowed to speak to request bail reduction or explain their inability to pay.

An estimated 77 percent of the approximately 8,600 inmates in the jail are there because they can’t afford to pay their bail of $5,000 or less. Many of these were arrested on misdemeanor charges. Between 2009 and 2015, 55 inmates who were awaiting trial because they couldn’t afford bail died while in custody. While the jail population decreased by 2,500 between 2009 and 2014, the number of pre-trial detainees fell by only 15, while at the same time, the number of people awaiting trial on a misdemeanor charge increased by 29 percent.

After the bail hearing by video, detainees who cannot pay their bail are taken to the County Court to see a judge, where they are assigned a court-appointed attorney. However, records show that bail is reduced in less than one percent of the cases, and detainees are generally kept locked up outside the courtroom, unable to speak for themselves.

The nonprofit organization Equal Justice Under Law has filed a lawsuit against Harris County on behalf of over 500 detainees who have been stuck in jail because of their inability to pay bond. One of the detainees is Maranda Lynn O’Donnell, who was arrested for allegedly driving without a valid license. Because she was unable to pay her bond, set at $2,500, she nearly lost her new job at a restaurant and was kept from her four-year-old daughter for two days until attorneys could get her released.

The lawsuit alleges that people who are detained before sentencing are more likely to plead guilty to charges. About 56 percent of suspects normally plead guilty if not locked up before trial, but nearly 80 percent of those who are kept in jail prior to trial will plead guilty. The lawsuit also states that the use of a strict bail schedule is unconstitutional because magistrates give no consideration to an arrestee’s ability to pay, which is required by law. The lawsuit names Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman, as well as five bail-hearing judges.

Equal Justice Under Law has argued and won eight similar cases in towns and cities in Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri since the beginning of 2015.

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