Too Poor to Make Bail? They’ll Cage You for That: Lawsuit Exposes Horrors of the US InJustice System
A Texas jail has been caging people who are too poor to afford bail, according to a new lawsuit.
Harris County Jail – the largest in Texas and the third largest in the US – is accused of keeping most of its incarcerated population locked up for misdemeanors because they can’t afford bail or trial.
Now, Harris County, Sheriff Ron Hickman, and five bail-hearing magistrates are being sued by the human rights group Equal Justice Under Law for discriminating against poor prisoners.
From the Houston Press:
In Harris County, 77 percent of the jail population are people who have yet to be convicted of crimes, who are in jail because they cannot afford to get out. A recent study by Gerald Wheeler, retired director of Harris County Pretrial Services and a doctoral researcher, found that 81 percent of people charged with misdemeanors will spend time in jail, and of those, a quarter of them can’t afford bail costing $500 or less. Only 7 percent were released on a personal bond.
The lawsuit, filed on May 19, alleges that Harris County’s use of a strict bail schedule is unconstitutional, given that magistrates rarely ever stray from it and therefore almost always fail to consider someone’s ability to pay, as is required by law.
Equal Justice Under Law attorney Elizabeth Rossi told the Houston Press that she and other lawyers sat in on bail hearings about 20 different times. The hearings only lasted about one minute, and the magistrate never even gave defendants a chance to speak, she said.
In the lawsuit, the attorneys note that one magistrate even told someone that a bail hearing was “not the forum” for discussing his ability to pay bail. When another asked, “Can I say something?” the magistrate responded: “You can talk to me all you want, but it’s not going to change the outcome. I’m setting it according to the schedule.”
Rossi said that after watching enough of them, the “banality” of the hearings struck her:
Everybody who’s involved in that process, from the judge to the deputies, just looked at it as another routine doldrum chore they have to do, and no one is thinking about the individual standing in that red square, maybe in an orange jumpsuit, who’s about to be told whether he’ll be released to his family or not based on whether he can pay an arbitrary dollar figure.