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Fighting Back Against Jailing of Poor

Today, the Texas Organizing Project, state Sen. Rodney Ellis and several allies held a press conference to continue shining a spotlight on Harris County’s illegal and immoral practice of keeping poor people accused of minor crimes in jail because they cannot afford to post bail.

Every night, approximately 80 percent of people behind bars at the Harris County Jail are there because they’re too poor to post bail. And about 10 people on average die every year awaiting trial.

Harris County uses a schedule to determine bail for everyone who is arrested. The schedule dictates the amount of bail based on the alleged offense, without any consideration of whether that person has the ability to pay that amount.

That means if a person is poor, there’s almost no chance of being released prior to trial, even if charged with a low level, nonviolent offense. But a rich person can walk the streets free before trial no matter what kind of danger they pose. That just is NOT right. That is NOT just.

Keeping poor people in jail also destroys lives. People kept in jail for minor offenses risk losing their jobs, which can lead to homelessness and economic insecurity.

It also doesn’t make financial sense for the county. It costs the county $75 per day to deprive someone of their freedom. In March 2016, Harris County taxpayers paid $513,075 every day to house people not convicted of a crime.

The Texas Organizing Project urges Harris County to take four steps to break this ugly practice of jailing the poor:

1. Stop detaining people accused of misdemeanor offenses who cannot afford to pay a cash bond;

2. Work with Mayor Turner and HPD to formulate a plan whereby HPD and the Harris County Sheriff’s Department and DA’s office agree to implement cite and release as allowed under Texas law;

3. Use non-monetary conditions of release, including stay-away orders, curfews, home detention or unsecured or “signature” bonds, which do not require payment up front for release but instead allow immediate release upon a promise to pay the monetary amount if the person does not appear as required; and

4. Adopt best practices from other jurisdictions including phone and text message reminders of court dates, rides to court for those without transportation or a stable address, counseling, drug and alcohol treatment, batterer intervention programs, anger management courses, alcohol monitors, or in extreme cases of particular risk, electronic monitoring.

We can have a system that keeps us safe and treats people humanely. Jailing people because they are poor does neither.

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Organizations that participated in the press conference included: Texas Organizing Project (TOP), Black Lives Matter HoustonTX, the Greater Houston Coalition for Justice, Fb The People Hold the Purse, University of Houston Law Center, Texas Appleseed, American Civil Liberties Union-Texas (ACLU), American GI Forum Houston Chapter, Dr. Guerra, United we Dream, Houston Peace and Justice Center, St. Mary’s United Methodist Church, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Civil Rights Project-Houston, Deric Muhammad, and state Sen. Rodney Ellis