Harris County to provide public defenders at bail hearings

Harris Co Bail

Harris County commissioners today voted unanimously to provide public defenders at bail hearings.

Two public defenders will be present at hearings where hearing officers set bail for criminal defendants, a process officials say results in the unnecessary jailing of thousands of defendants because they can’t afford bail or are unfamiliar with the legal process.

The pilot program approved Tuesday is part of the county’s effort to reform its criminal justice system that has come under intense scrutiny in recent years.

A federal civil rights lawsuit alleges the county’s bail system violates the rights of poor people by enforcing a rigid bail schedule that does not take into account that many poor people facing misdemeanor charges cannot make even nominal bail payments.

“It’s going in the right direction,” said Harris County judge Ed Emmett. “This is one of those things we needed to do.”

This story originally appeared 3/14/2017 in the Houston Chronicle.

Thumbs up, down

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(Thumbs up) Sometimes seeing is believing. So, for the first time in our history, we need three Thumbs. First, an up to the Texas Organizing Project for compiling videos that show the disrespectful and discriminatory treatment of low-level offenders by Harris County magistrates. Next, an “Up” to Chronicle reporter Lise Olsen for a thorough and relentless examination of the system being challenged in federal court. And, finally, Thumbs Up to state Sen. John Whitmire who, galvanized by what he read from Olsen and saw on tape, filed complaints against the judges.

(Thumbs up) There’s a lot to be thankful for this season and at the top of our list is the recovery from a double lung transplant by Lester Smith. He’s home and resting comfortably after more than 100 days in the hospital. One of Houston’s most generous men, Smith is the people’s philanthropist. Like many here, he made his fortune sticking drills in the ground. That wealth has been redistributed largely in the medical arena without forgetting the little guy.

(Thumbs up) When baby lawyer Patrick McGinnis of Houston became the 100,000th member of the State Bar of Texas recently, he wasn’t awarded a free gavel and gently worn brief case. All he got was an interview on the bar’s blog. “It is an honor to represent a milestone for both the Texas Bar and this wonderful profession,” said the 25-year-old litigator at Eggleston & Briscoe, LLP. “Plus, it’s icing on the cake for getting through that nice little test the Board of Law Examiners administered in July.”

(Thumbs twiddled) It’s the least wonderful week of the year in Texas when an envelope in the mail box has a return address from the tax assessor-collector. State Sen. Paul Bettencourt is riding to the rescue with legislation to make it tougher to raise taxes. Property values are escalating in cities like Houston and incomes aren’t rising. “What happens is tax bills go up faster than Texans’ pay checks,” Bettencourt said. “What this means is, that we’re putting too much pressure on where they live and work to pay property tax bills, and those bills must slow down.” The obvious solution would be to tax income not property, but this is Texas and …

(Thumbs twiddled) Need to blow off tax-paying steam? Need a very “Texas” holiday present? At the Ox Ranch in Uvalde, you can drive a tank and pop some serious caps for $600 to $8,000 depending on your choice of tank, mortar, machine gun and whether you want to crush a car.

(Thumbs down) Donald Trump’s single largest haul of electoral votes came from Texas. He also didn’t do bad at fundraisers hosted in River Oaks and the posh suburbs of Dallas. But when it comes to cabinet appointments, as of today we don’t seem to have a serious dog in the hunt, despite our 38 votes for the Trump-Pence ticket. Sid Miller has been floated as Secretary of Agriculture, but that’s a non-starter. As for a telegenic former governor becoming Secretary of Veterans Affairs, it looks like Sarah Palin is the person, not Gov. Good Hair.

(Thumbs down) So much for the Billion Dollar Buyer’s boast in this very column last week. UH board chair Tilman Fertitta said the UH football coach wasn’t leaving for money. Well, he did. One day after being outcoached by lowly Memphis for loss No. 3 of the season, Tom Herman was snatched away by the University of Texas at Austin. Price tag? $5 million a year. Here’s what Fertitta told a Houston radio station: “It’s disappointing that the University of Texas – who wants to open a campus in Houston and said they would never do anything to harm the University of Houston, with all the football coaches in America, who said that they would stand up for us to get into the Big 12 and then didn’t even vote for us when they met with the commissioner and all the schools – had to come take our little football coach. But that’s business and it’s a great opportunity for Tom and I wish him the best. I hope they all do well, but I just hope we do better.”

This story originally appeared 12/2/2016 in the Houston Chronicle.

Bail reform

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Say her name. Sandra Bland.

An encounter that began with changing lanes without a turn signal ended with Bland behind bars at the Waller County jail last year. That’s where she died, unable to afford bail. Her death made national news and rallied a cause.

How many other Sandra Blands make their way through our jails, locked away for minor violations and left to suffer?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit brought against the city of Houston this week.

Too many Houstonians have been arrested, locked up and denied a hearing to determine if there was probable cause for the initial arrest, according to the Texas Fair Defense Project and the Civil Rights Corps. The Supreme Court has held that governments have 48 hours to grant an arraignment hearing or risk violating the Fourth Amendment. That unconstitutional delay falls specifically on those who don’t have the money to bail out of Houston’s jail while awaiting transfer to Harris County facilities, the two civil rights organizations allege in their lawsuit.

Putting this burden on the poor doesn’t make Houston safer. However, it does raise the odds that arrestees will end up losing their jobs.

Punish someone for not having enough money, and then make it harder for them to keep a line of work. As Marvin Zindler used to say: It is hell being poor.

This lawsuit against the city follows a similar legal action at the county level. Personal wealth, not criminality, is a better predictor of whether someone languishes behind bars at the Harris County jail. More than 77 percent of the jail population hasn’t even been convicted of a crime, according to a study by the retired director of Harris County Pretrial Services. More than 80 percent of people charged only with misdemeanors will spend time in jail, and a quarter of those folks can’t even afford a bail of $500 or less.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office received a $2 million grant this year to reform the bail process. We’ve yet to see the results.

But recently released video by the Texas Organizing Project doesn’t herald a positive outcome. In full color, Harris County magistrates treat bail hearings will all the nuance of an assembly line. The embarrassing scenes have earned the ire of state Sen. John Whitmire.

“Texas governing statutes clearly state that a magistrate should exercise their full discretion when conducting probable cause hearings and setting bond amounts,” Whitmire, a Houston Democrat, said.

Magistrates should consider personal recognizance bonds for the indigent. Instead, as one egregious video revealed, magistrates just view poor repeat offenders as “job security.” And taxpayers end up footing the bill to house these low-level violators.

No other major city in Texas has these sorts of problems. Maybe there’s just something in the bayou water.

Or maybe it is just politics.

In a meeting with the Chronicle editorial board last year, Whitmire blamed local for-profit bond companies for putting pressure on elected judges.

Wouldn’t you know it? There’s an actual bail bondsman on Houston’s City Council: Michael Kubosh. And so far, the mayor’s office has remained silent on this new lawsuit.

While we wait for reform at the city and county levels, the upcoming legislative session in Austin offers some changes that will help keep the poor out of jail.

House Bill 50, filed by state Rep. James White, R-Hillister, would allow justices of the peace and municipal judges to waive fines and substitute community service before defendants default on payments. Senate Bill 271, filed by state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Kerrville, would eliminate most arrests for Class C misdemeanors – the sort of low-level violation that eventually landed Bland in jail.

It doesn’t take jackbooted thugs or a fascist coup to deny Houstonians their constitutional rights.

All it takes is the banal inertia of status quo and a sclerotic political system that ignores the lives of the poor.

How many more people have to suffer in jail before Texans have had enough?

This story originally appeared 12/9/2016 in the Houston Chronicle.