MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a case that has the potential to reshape bail practices across the United States, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Texas, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Thursday joined 11 other organizations in filing friend-of-the-court briefs in the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, asking the court to affirm a district court judge’s April decision that prevents Harris County, Texas, from holding misdemeanor defendants in jail simply because they cannot afford bail.
In May 2016, the Civil Rights Corp filed a federal lawsuit challenging “pay or stay” money bail practices in Harris County on equal protection grounds. The county is home to Houston, the fourth-largest city in the nation. On April 28, 2017, following an eight-day trial, U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal granted the plaintiffs’ amended motion for preliminary injunction, finding Harris County’s bail system unconstitutional and discriminatory against the poor.
She also certified the matter as a class-action lawsuit. Harris County has appealed the preliminary injunction to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. Six states, as well as the American Bail Coalition, Professional Bondsmen of Texas, and Professional Bondsmen of Harris County have filed amicus briefs in support of Harris County and reversal of the district court’s decision.
“Harris County’s bail system is another example of a local government punishing poor people because they could not buy their way out of jail before their trial,” said Micah West, staff attorney for the SPLC, which has successfully encouraged 75 Alabama cities to change their money bail practices. “This process brazenly prioritizes money over liberty. It fails to take into account whether a defendant is a flight risk or a danger to public safety.”
The case was initially filed by the Civil Rights Corps on behalf of Maranda O’Donnell, a young mother who was detained in the Harris County Jail when she could not afford to post $2,500 bail after being charged with driving with a suspended license.
On June 7, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas denied Harris County’s application to stay a preliminary injunction issued by a federal judge that required the release of people who were awaiting trial on misdemeanor charges and could not pay bail. Hundreds of people charged with minor offenses have been released from jail following the order.
“The Constitution guarantees a basic right to equal treatment under the law. Money bail makes that impossible,” said Brandon Buskey, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, which won a settlement in June that stops four Mississippi counties from jailing felony defendants because they can’t afford bail. “In Harris County, Texas, and in too many other places around the country, those who can pay go home. Those who can’t pay face a cruel dilemma: remain in jail for weeks or months or plead guilty.”
“High rates of pretrial detention are a driving force for mass incarceration,” said Myesha Braden, acting director of the Criminal Justice Project for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “Far too often, bail determination decisions are influenced by stereotypes and racial bias that unjustly target African Americans and Hispanics. As a result, African Americans, Latinos and other racial minorities are entrapped in a cycle of escalating debt and unnecessary incarceration. The wealth-based bail bond scheme in Harris County highlights these systemic injustices in our criminal justice system, and they must end.”
“Harris County’s bail procedures are an affront to the bedrock constitutional principle of equality before the law,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney of the ACLU of Texas. “Instead, the county effectively has two justice systems, one for the rich and one for the poor, which can deprive legally innocent people of their homes, families and livelihoods simply because they cannot produce enormous sums of bail money they cannot afford. It’s wrong, it’s unconstitutional, and given the availability of sensible and effective alternatives, totally unnecessary.”
The case illustrates a national effort to end unconstitutional money bail practices. U.S. Sens. Kamala Harris and Rand Paul introduced a bill last month that would provide incentives for state and local governments to replace or reform their money bail systems.