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.