Cash bail system promotes profit, not justice

BailGavel

Bail is not intended to be a punishment; its intended purpose is to make sure that people show up for their court date. But in communities across Texas, people who are still presumed innocent are being held in jail because they can’t afford to post bail. The Harris County money bail system has been challenged in court and found unconstitutional by a federal judge for precisely this reason.

But in an op-ed piece in the Houston Chronicle last week, City Council Member Michael Kubosh – who also happens to be a bail bondsman – defended money bail as indispensable to the maintenance of public safety. What he failed to mention, of course, is that bondsmen like him profit from subverting the basic American principle of “innocent until proven guilty.”

Here’s how: If you have been arrested and booked into jail, a judge will assign you a bail amount of, for example, $2,500. What happens next depends entirely on how wealthy you are.

If you can pay in full, you go home. If you can afford to pay a bondsman 10 percent of the amount – $250 – and you agree to wear his branded ankle monitor or submit to whatever other conditions he might impose on you, then you can go home. The catch, of course, is that even if you are innocent, even if your charges are dismissed, the bondsman still gets to pocket your $250.

If you don’t have $250 – the most common scenario, as well as the worst – you will sit in a cell awaiting trial, possibly for months, while taxpayers foot the bill for your incarceration, your food and your medical care. You will almost certainly lose your job and possibly your home and even custody of your children. In other words, your life will be ruined; again, even if you are innocent of the crime with which you have been charged.

Such a system is clearly not interested in justice. It is interested only in money.

As two people involved in civil rights and community organizations advocating for bail reform, we do not suggest that everyone charged with a crime should simply be released from jail. What we are saying is that determination should not be made on as unjust, ineffective and predatory a consideration as money bail. Those few people who are truly dangerous should be detained no matter the size of their wallets, based on an adequate hearing and a transparent order that recites the reasons the person is too dangerous to let go. But studies show that nearly everyone who is detained pre-trial can be released without jeopardizing public safety, and there are a wealth of proven alternatives: text message alerts of court dates, transportation to court, pre-trial diversion programs and treatment for mental health and addiction, among others.

We’ve already witnessed the effectiveness of the alternatives. New Jersey, for example, once the center of the bail bond industry, recently eliminated money bail via statewide legislation that came into effect in January 2017. By June of that year, jail populations were down nearly 20 percent without any meaningful reported decline in public safety.

Kubosh is right about one thing: Almost all Texas counties do rely on a money bail system to release defendants. But all that means is that almost all Texas counties have an unconstitutional system of pretrial release. This is exactly why Harris County isn’t the only jurisdiction facing a challenge to its money bail system. Last week civil rights organizations filed a federal class action lawsuit against Dallas County for similar violations. Other such challenges are underway all across the country.

It’s time for Texas to end its twisted addiction to money bail and start using the tools to ensure that no one’s liberty is contingent on the size of their pocketbooks. Texans have a #Right2Justice.

Jackson and Jenkins are members of the Right2Justice Coalition.

This story originally appeared 2/1/2018 in the Houston Chronicle.

Growing our fight for racial justice

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A young man recently shared with me that he gets pulled over by the same police officer at least once a week. He said it very matter-of-factly, like it’s something he just has to put up with.

And I know this is not an isolated matter. Everyday, in our communities, people endure harassment by police, and if they get arrested, spend days and even weeks in jail because they can’t afford bail. And it is no coincidence that most people who are trampled by the justice system are people of color. 

But I also know that it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have to put up with police harassment. We deserve more. We deserve better. We deserve justice. 

That’s why this year, we expanded our fight for criminal justice reform to Dallas and Bexar counties, after kicking it off in Harris County in 2016. Too many of our people are having their lives destroyed by the criminal justice system, and we have the power to change it if we fight together. 

Sign up here to be part of the fight.

Here’s a quick rundown of some of what we did this past month and what’s ahead:

On Tuesday night in Dallas, we held a well-attended Right2Justice community dinner, where members gained valuable input from the community on ways how we can locally protect rights and civil liberties, work toward ending mass incarceration, and resist the Trump agenda.

Earlier Tuesday, TOP Ed Fund signed on as a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of bail practices in Dallas County after we were denied access to bail proceedings by the Dallas County Sheriff, in violation of the public’s First Amendment rights. 

We also bailed out three people who had been in Dallas County Jail accused of minor crimes because they couldn’t afford bail. Call or text Rashd Ibrahim at (469) 510-9069 or email him at ribrahim@organizetexas.org to get involved. 

Currently in Houston, we’re continuing our fight to reform the bail system that a federal judge has already ruled unconstitutional but the county keeps wasting millions to defend it. We’re also gearing up to tackle debtors’ prison, juvenile justice and police accountability. 

And to keep judges accountable, judges who are elected and can be allies or foes on bail reform, we are holding a meet and greet on February 16. Call or text Dieter Cantu at (832) 389-0049 or email him at dcantu@organizetexas.org to get involved. 

With local elections coming up, TOP members in San Antonio are preparing to host a community forum on February 15 to hear from a couple of candidates for Bexar County District Attorney on their vision for bringing change to the office. 

We also are hosting this forum to share with residents information about the power and influence this county position has. RSVP if you’re interested in attending! Call or text Laquita Garcia at (972) 342-5116 or email her at lgarcia@organizetexas.org to get involved.

This year is shaping up to be a powerful one, and our committed members are investing of their time and energy because they know the status quo is not acceptable. They know we need a transformed criminal justice that protects and serves Black and Latino families, not oppresses them. 

Join the fight by contacting us today. 

You can also support our fight for justice by donating here

Yours in the fight,
Tarsha Jackson
Criminal Justice Director
Texas Organizing Project

Houston Rising Hopes To Help Recovery Efforts For Low Income Families

HarveyRecoveryCzar

Houston Rising is a coalition of more than a dozen community based groups fighting for the city’s low income population. They hope that by joining forces they can be more successful in helping those less fortunate.

On Saturday they held a public hearing at the Finnigan Park Community Center. Marvin Odum, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s recovery czar, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson-Lee, State Senator Sylvia Garcia, along with other officials attended the hearing.

The hearing’s topic was equity in recovery efforts.

Jennifer Pena isn’t confident. She cleans houses but lost 60 percent of her business because of Harvey. She says FEMA denied her claim for reimbursement for furniture lost to the storm because they had no value prior to Harvey. She tries hard to overcome poverty but feels she’s getting no help.

“When you’re poor you’re poor and you’ve just got to live with the circumstances and it shouldn’t be like that,” she says, unable to hold back tears.

Retired Marine Ronald Eugene Magic agrees. He’s living off $735 a month he gets from the Marines. After three moves to find a dry place in Crosby to wait out the hurricane, he’s back in East Houston. “You cannot help somebody if you telling them, “Hey I’m gonna do this,” and you don’t,” Magic says.

With low income housing already in short supply in Houston, available housing is much worse following Harvey. But Marvin Odum, the Mayor’s recovery czar, thinks this is the chance for those who feel overlooked, needed. Odum says, “In every respect this is an opportunity to do things better than they were before. Period.”

This story originally appeared 11/18/2017 on Houston Public Media.