Fighting Back Against Jailing of Poor

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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

Coalition Calls on Next Mayor to Raise Minimum Wage for Publicly Funded Projects

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Today, a coalition of community and labor organizations staged a tour of of sites that received tax dollars to tell the story of how the city subsidizes the creation of poverty jobs.

“Of the City of Houston’s 35 economic development tax-incentive deals with developers between 2004 – 2014, only 7 had any job promises,” said Feldon Bonner, a member of the Texas Organizing Project at the press conference that kicked off the tour. “None of the deals included language about the quality of the promised jobs, and only one has provided reports to the City on its job creation deliverables. This is unacceptable.”

The tour started at the Westin Downtown, formerly known as the Inn at the Ballpark, for which Landry’s received $2 million dollars in tax giveaways, and despite failing to provide the 125 jobs promised, the city council voted to allow Landry’s to keep the incentives.

“These tax deals are not going to mom and pop businesses. They are not going to small, women-owned, minority owned or disadvantaged businesses,” said Pastor David Madison, a TOP leader. “Tillman Fertitta, CEO, chairman and owner of Landry’s has a networth of $2.3 billion. Yet Landry’s is one of the region’s largest poverty job creators paying its more than 10,000 service and restaurant workers in the Houston area low wages.”

The next stop was at Ainbinder Heights, a development anchored by Walmart, and includes a McDonald’s and Taco Cabana. The city awarded Ainbinder $6 million in tax breaks for property improvements. The agreement between the city and Ainbinder spans 48 pages, yet the city failed to negotiate any specific commitments for the number and quality of jobs or any other meaningful community benefits.

“Let’s not forget that Walmart is the largest corporation in the world! And the Walton family is the richest family in America with a net worth of $149 billion dollars. Do you think they need our tax incentives?” Florence Coleman, a TOP leader, asked the community members present. “Do they deserve our tax incentives? The average Walmart associate makes just $8.81 per hour. Nationally, taxpayers are already footing a $6.2 billion bill in public assistance including food stamps, Medicaid and subsidized housing for Walmart employees who can’t provide for their families because of the low wages Walmart pays them.”

The final stop was at the Astrodome, a project that will probably receive tax dollars. County Judge Ed Emmett has traveled around the world to put together a plan for its reconstruction that includes water park, theater & trails. But there is no plan to assure that the jobs created by this project pay well and have benefits.

“The Astrodome was built by union workers back in the early 1960s, and we’re proud to have contributed to it,” said Paul Puente of the Building Trades Union. “And our elected officials have the obligation to leverage our public dollars effectively so projects like the Astrodome redevelopment provide good jobs that pay at least $15 dollars per hour or prevailing wage, whichever is higher. Jobs that provide training and benefits. And to make sure African American and Latino families in struggling neighborhoods have access to these jobs by including local hire requirements and second chance provisions.”

The coalition staged the tour today to so that Houston’s next mayor makes higher wages a priority.

“We are here today to make sure the mistakes of the past are not repeated with publicly funded development projects like the ones we visited earlier today,” Puente added. “Our local economy cannot afford one more poverty wage job. Our communities cannot accept one more poverty-wage job.”

The following organizations participated in today’s tour: Texas Organizing Project, SEIU Texas, AFL-CIO, Fe y Justicia Worker Center and Working America. Pictures can be downloaded from here.