Houston News & Search
While Harris County officials are complaining that a federal judge’s bail order threatens public safety, the county has failed to provide more than 100 low-level defendants with pretrial services aimed at ensuring they make their court dates.
The latest revelations come amid criticism from District Attorney Kim Ogg, who accused county officials of trying to deliberately undermine the success of defendants released on personal bonds to bolster the county’s argument.
“Clearly the hope is that the reformed bail process fails,” Ogg said in a June 30 email obtained by the Chronicle. “This is necessarily a violation of their ethical duty and certainly not in the best interest of ordinary Harris County citizens.”
Ogg’s email did not identify which officials she believed might be responsible, and her office referred a request for additional comment to a court filing in which she supported changes to the county’s cash-bail system for misdemeanor offenses.
Several county commissioners Tuesday continued to bemoan the new bail system, which they say leads to release of potentially dangerous criminals into the community without requiring cash bail.
Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack said Ogg’s accusations are too vague to merit a response.
“This is the first time I’ve ever heard of it,” Radack said. “If there’s something like this going on, why hasn’t Kim Ogg told any members of commissioners court?”
About 140 defendants did not receive pre-trial services because they were released directly on a personal bond by the sheriff’s office without going before a judge, said Robert Soard, first assistant to County Attorney Vince Ryan.
He blamed the slip-up on workflow problems in the five weeks since the court’s order went into effect. The county is working on it, he said.
“It just takes a while to get a system as large as Harris County operating the way it should be operating,” he said. “You just can’t flip a switch to make these things happen overnight.”
Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston threw out the county’s prior cash-bail system, saying it discriminated against low-level indigents who could not afford to get out of jail while awaiting trial.
The April 28 order, which came after a protracted injunction hearing in March, stems from a lawsuit filed on behalf of Maranda ODonnell, a 22-year-old mother who was jailed for two days because she couldn’t afford $2,500 bail for driving without a valid license. Two others arrested on low-level offenses joined ODonnell’s lawsuit against Harris County.
After the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stop the judge’s order, county officials began releasing inmates on June 7.
The county is appealing Rosenthal’s order, which allows misdemeanor defendants to be released on personal bonds if they do not have the financial means to post cash bail. Those who have other, more serious charges or who are facing immigration detainers or are awaiting mental health determinations are not required to be released.
The order requires release within 24 hours of the arrest. Some are able to appear before a hearing officer, but others have been released by the sheriff’s office if they cannot get in to see a judge by the deadline.
The order has resulted in 10 percent of about 1,400 defendants being released from the county jail without seeing a hearing officer, according to Soard at the county attorney’s office.
By missing court, the defendants also miss out on the assistance provided by the county’s Pre-Trial Services Division, such as text reminders about upcoming court dates that other defendants get seven days in advance and again on the day of the hearing.
Kelvin Banks, director of pretrial services, said a vendor, Voice4Net, manages the text messages for the county. He said his office is working with the vendor to set up reminders for those who are released by the sheriff, and is moving forward with plans for an additional staff member and training at the jail.
He said Monday he was reviewing resumes.
“We want to make sure we’re doing everything we can do to give defendants the best opportunity to be succesful on pretrial release,” Banks said.
Another vendor, called Uptrust, met with county officials on June 28, two days before Ogg sent her email, proposing a two-way messaging system that allows defendants to respond and provides information on childcare options and transportation.
Uptrust offered a six-month trial of its system for $3,000 per month, according to a June 9 email obtained by the Chronicle.
Ogg indicated in the June 30 email that she supports using the Uptrust system, “in spite of the county’s determination to thwart our efforts to improve offender court appearance.”
Sheriff Ed Gonzalez also supports the system, he indicated in a June 20 email.
Neal Manne, one of the attorneys for ODonnell, offered to foot the bill for the service.
“If the county worked as hard at fixing its broken system as it does on fear-mongering, everyone would be better off,” Manne said Tuesday. “Apparently the county isn’t doing the things its own consultant has said are simple and effective ways to ensure that defendants appear in court.”
County officials, however, said they plan to remain with the current vendor.
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