For Immediate Release
Sept. 4, 2020
Contact: Angelica Luna-Kaufman
Democratic Judges Work to Remove Discrimination from Harris County Bail Practices
Say Shift Was Needed to Restore Faith in the Justice System
HOUSTON – For decades in Harris County, anyone charged with a low-level crime could be locked up simply because they could not afford bail. This jail time occurred before a trial took place, often leading to negative, life-changing consequences.
Some people detained on misdemeanor charges lost their jobs. Others lost their housing. Many had difficulty finding and paying for childcare. The devastating impacts of pre-trial detention even led innocent people to plead guilty in order to be released.
“A system that causes innocent people to plead guilty is not a system people can trust,” said Natalia Cornelio, Democratic judicial candidate for Harris County’s 351st Distric Court.
Today the system is changing as a result of a class action lawsuit claiming that Harris County’s misdemeanor bail practices were unconstitutional. But change may not have occurred if voters had not elected Democrats to replace a group of mostly Republican incumbent judges in 2018.
The sitting judges were fighting rulings by both the U.S. District and Federal Appeals Courts that found Harris County’s bail bond practices violated the Constitution. Less than a week after the new judges took office, they withdrew their predecessors’ appeal of the lawsuit, and together they have worked to reach a final settlement.
“That election demonstrates the impact voters can have when they vote the entire ballot,” said Lillie Schechter, Harris County Democratic Party Chair. “The judicial races appear toward the end of a long ticket, and the individuals who win these elections can have an enormous impact on our daily lives.”
As a result of the settlement, most Harris County misdemeanor arrestees will be given a personal bond with exceptions for some offenses, like domestic violence and assault.
“My colleagues and I are very proud of our work on the settlement,” said Texas Criminal Judge Genesis Draper, who presides over Harris County Criminal Court at Law 12. “It is a binding agreement no matter who is in place.”
The settlement also requires the county to implement programs designed to improve court appearance rates, which could include helping defendants with transportation, childcare and mental health needs.
“This agreement was critical to ensuring an end to the Harris County practice of detaining thousands of misdemeanor arrestees each year prior to trial simply because of their inability to pay a cash bond,” Cornelio told the Houston Chronicle.
“We recognize that the Constitution prohibits jailing people based on poverty, and the Constitution is, in fact, the rule of law,” she said.
Draper added that the settlement furthers the justice system by bringing the Constitution to the heart of the courts. “We are just changing the focus. Now we are really evaluating the Constitution and what it means to our cases, and I think our system is the better for it.”
“This is so important for every judge and judicial candidate,” said Te'iva Bell, the Democratic candidate for the 339th Criminal District Court in Houston. “People must have faith in the process, and for that to happen, we must follow both due process and the Constitution.”
Early results indicate that the revamped bail bonds system is working well for Harris County. The first official report, released Thursday, found that although fewer people have been jailed, new arrests remain low.
“Early data shows that overhauling the bail system in Harris County is working,” Duke University law professor Brandon L. Garret told the Houston Chronicle.
“Gone are the days when a poor person would be locked up solely due to an inability to pay,” said Garrett, who is leading the oversight team for the seven-year federal consent decree.
Schechter calls this an “exciting beginning for much-needed change in the Harris County bail system.”
“This is another example that shows it is possible to protect our community, build trust and eliminate inequities,” Schechter said.
“The work that has been done by Democrats in Harris County demonstrates that voting for Democrats results in positive changes,” she said. “We want these changes to continue.”
“On Election Day, we need to join together and vote for every candidate with Democrat next to their name – from the start of the ballot to the finish,” Schechter said.