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Federal Court Looks At Harris County Bail Bond Policies

A federal court here in Houston is looking into the practice of keeping someone in jail who can’t make bail. It’s a lawsuit filed by the Texas Fair Defense Project, which claims that Harris County is violating the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the constitution by keeping people jailed solely because they can’t pay bail.



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The case alleges that Harris County’s bail system violates the rights of the poor by not taking into account those who cannot make even nominal bail payments. Newly-elected Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and District Attorney Kim Ogg support bail reform. Harris County Judge Ed Emmett supports a new pilot program that would have public defenders present at bail hearings. Alec Karakatsanis is with the Civil Rights Corps., one of the groups filing the lawsuit.

“Every study of the Harris County system has shown that you actually make people more likely to commit crimes in the future when you keep them in jail just for a couple days because they can’t pay. They lose touch with their family, they lose their bed in the shelter, they lose their housing, they lose their jobs.”

Houston City Council Member Michael Kubosh is in the bail bond business. He says bail bonds ensure there’s a financial interest to show up for court.

“There’s co-sureties involved — sometimes it’s the mother, the brother a father, a relative — who basically puts their finger on the individual and says ‘look, you’re gonna go to court.’ Now, when you remove this element and when they miss court, there is no family member trying to get them back.”

But civil rights groups say a decision to hold someone in jail shouldn’t be made based on their wealth, but on the basis of evidence and an objective inquiry about a detainee’s threat to society.

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