Activists urge Harris County to settle contentious bail lawsuit

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Houston activists called Thursday for Harris County to stop fighting a federal lawsuit over bail reform and use the money instead to improve the system.

The call comes as the Texas Organizing Project plans to join a national effort to bail out mothers who are being held across the country on low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford bail.

“Harris County’s bail system is unconstitutional, morally indefensible and a waste of taxpayer dollars,” said Tarsha Jackson, TOP’s criminal justice director. “Settle this bail lawsuit now.”

Local pastors and community leaders joined the push for more personal recognizance bonds, which means no money changes hands.

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“The county should follow the Constitution,” said Dr. James Douglas, president of the Houston branch of the NAACP.

A federal judge in Houston last week ruled against the county’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford cash bail.

In a blistering 193-page ruling released Friday, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates as early as May 15 without posting cash bail while they are awaiting trial.. She indicated she would rule on the legality of the current system before July 1.

Harris County has already spent more than $2 million fighting the lawsuit, and recently hired an additional attorney at %550 an hour to help with appeals.

County officials have been meeting to decide whether they will ask for a stay or appeal the ruling.

At a press conference Thursday in front of Harris County’s 20-story criminal courthouse, Jackson announced the organization is joining a national “Bail for Mamas” effort to help get women out of jail.

She said the organization is raising money and hopes to bail out as many as 50, some as early as Monday.

“The objective is get these mothers back in society,” Jackson said. “We can’t bail them all out, but we can bail out low-level offenders.”

Since the organization will be posting bail, not paying bail bondsmen, they will get the money back when each case is complete. She said she hopes to use the money to do a similar program for men for Father’s Day.

The program puts a spotlight on the federal lawsuit at the center of the Harris County’s bail reform, which was filed on behalf of Maranda Odonnell, a single mother who was held for two days on a charge of driving without a valid license because she couldn’t afford the $2,500 bail.

The lawsuit was filed last year by two civil rights group – Texas Fair Defense Project and Civil Rights Corps – and local law firm Susman Godfrey law firm and names top county officials and a string of judges and hearing officers.

The federal ruling was handed down more than a month after a long hearing in which more than a dozen witnesses took the stand, including several judges.

Rosenthal cited reports showing that of the 50,000 people arrested in Harris County on Class A or Class B misdemeanors in 2015, fewer than 10 percent were released on unsecured personal bonds.

She concluded that even if hearing officers were not acting deliberately, the county had been using money bail as a form of preventive detention.

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