Harris County Bail Revamp Raises Concerns

It seems like the entire nation is seeing reforms to bail systems, usually having to do with the way traditional bail systems seem to penalize people of modest means. People with little to no available cash to secure their release languish in jail before their trial date, while many people, often arraigned for severe charges but with large amounts of petty cash at their disposal, are able to walk free within hours of their bail being set.

In Harris County, a reformed bail system was put in place earlier in the year. It is raising a lot of concerns among the police community and citizens at large.

The new system – what it looks like

Basically, the new bail system replaces cash bails for many types of misdemeanor charges with unsecured bonds. The defendant does not have to pay cash money or hire a bail bondsman now, in order to be released before their trial. Instead, they sign an affidavit which lists their assets and provides a legal statement of their inability to come up with the cash bail or afford a bail bondsman’s services within the 24-hour period following their arraignment. The only misdemeanor charges which are not eligible for this new unsecured bond system are charges from other jurisdictions, immigrations charges, mental health holds, or family violence charges.

The premise is that bail is not supposed to detain people because they are poor, but to ensure they appear at their trial. Under the previous system, defendants would be warehoused prior to their misdemeanor trials simply because they could not afford to pay their bail.

The opposition says….

The failure to appear rate in Harris county has skyrocketed since the implementation of this new system. Under the previous bail system, cash bond failure to appear rates hovered steadily around 9% year to year. The failure rate for these new unsecured bonds is currently near 30%, and climbing monthly. The Harris County Sherriff’s Office is concerned over these numbers, and states the problem is that 24 hours is not long enough for their people to verify if the financial resources stated by defendants on their affidavits are accurate or not.

The problem escalates when defendants arrested by other agencies are transferred into the custody of the Sherriff’s department anywhere from 12 to 16 hours after their arrest. The 24-hour window starts at the moment of arrest, not the time when the Sherriff’s office takes custody of the defendant. So, in reality, instead of 24 hours to verify the accuracy and truthfulness of a defendant’s fiscal statements, the officers only have around 8 to 12 hours to complete this task, and that is simply not enough time.

One prime example put forth by the officers is the case involving a man named Christopher Worley. Charged with DWI and a bail set at $2,500, this man listed a salary of $6,000 a month, $23,000 in savings, and more than $500 in cash on his person as his resources on his affidavit for unsecured bond. He stated that the most he could pay toward his bail was $500, and only $500, and the Sherriff’s Office did not have time to verify the truth of his statements or whether he could, in fact, access other of his assets within that time frame, he was released on unsecured bond. This defendant’s home address was listed in the state of Oregon, and court records show that he failed to appear at his court date. The county subsequently forfeited his bond, but nothing more has been able to happen on this case, because of a lack of manpower to pursue the defendant in Oregon.

This example is just one of many the Harris County police has on hand to prove that this system is not working, and needs to be adjusted further, if not completely done away with. For a more thorough discussion, we recommend reading the article published by Channel 2 News in Houston, which provides a detailed analysis of this situation.

What do you think of the new bail system?

Is it sustainable?

Does it need to be reworked?

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