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Attorneys For Plaintiffs In Lawsuit Against Harris County’s Bail System Want Changes

The goal of the lawsuit is to get Harris County to stop detaining people without implementing procedures to determine if they can afford their bails.

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Bob Casey Federal Courthouse in Downtown Houston

The initial hearing on a lawsuit filed against Harris County because of its bail system took place on Thursday in Houston’s Federal Courthouse.

The lawsuit originated with the case of Maranda Lynn O’Donnell, who is 22 years old, has a low income and a 4-year-old daughter.

O’Donnell was arrested in May for driving with an invalid license and sent to the Harris County Jail because she couldn’t afford her $2,500 bail.

The lawsuit contends that her hearing only lasted about a minute and she was never asked if she could pay the bail.

The Texas Fair Defense Project, the group Equal Justice Under Law and the firm Susman Godfrey represent O’Donnell and two other Harris County residents who also filed suit.

They argue the bail system is unconstitutional because Harris County judges typically don’t take into consideration the financial means of defendants to make bail, even if they’ve been arrested for misdemeanors.

Rebecca Bernhardt, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, says the injustice is that the system benefits people with money.

“We’re just releasing them in Harris County based on whether they can pay a thousand dollars, or $4,000, quickly and easily or not. It’s just incredibly irrational and, you know, harmful to everyone’s public safety and the stability of the whole community,” she says. 

The goal of the lawsuit is to get Harris County to stop detaining people without implementing procedures to determine if they can afford their bails.

Terence O’Rourke, a special assistant at the office of Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, says the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council is already working on several alternatives to incarceration which should address the concerns expressed in the lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal set the next hearing for Friday, August 26th.

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Alvaro ‘Al’ Ortiz

Alvaro ‘Al’ Ortiz

Digital News Producer

Alvaro ‘Al’ Ortiz is originally from Madrid (Spain). He worked for several years in his home country and gained experience in all platforms of journalism, from wire services to print, as well as broadcast and digital reporting. In 2001, Al came to the United States to pursue a Master’s degree...

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