For poor people who've committed petty crimes, such as possession of a couple of ounces of pot or driving with an invalid license, a personal bond makes sense. Perhaps the judge finds a defendant is not a public-safety threat. Maybe the judge finds he or she isn't a flight risk, either. And as judges likely know, keeping a person in jail because of inability to pay a bond would only derail a defendant's life further.
But in hundreds of cases in Galveston County, personal bonds appear to be rescinded almost as quickly as they are given. And that's because, somewhat ironically, people can't afford to pay the small fee associated with them.
According to October statistics from Galveston County's Collections and Personal Bond Department, 324 people charged with misdemeanors who were eligible for a personal bond weren't given one because they couldn't pay the personal bond fee. That's two-thirds of the people charged with misdemeanors in October, and 40 percent of all people arrested in Galveston County that month.
"It doesn't make very much sense to be housing people in jail just because they don't have access to funds to pay for a personal bond," said Galveston County Commissioner Ryan Dennard, adding that this pattern persists in all of the county's monthly personal-bond reports. "The very purpose of a personal bond is to be able to facilitate release of people who are not a risk to the community, who are low-level offenders and who don't have the resources to get out on traditional bail."
The personal bond fee is 3 percent of someone's bond or $20, whichever is greater. While Bonnie Quiroge, director of justice administration, tells us that the courts "have no choice" but to impose this fee because it is statutorily required, the Texas Criminal Code statute says judges have the authority to lower the fee or waive it altogether. (Quiroge said judges do in fact do this sometimes; it looks like 16 percent of defendants charged with misdemeanors were given a personal bond and could afford the fee.) At least in neighboring Harris County, Director of Pretrial Services Kelvin Banks says that defendants aren't required to post the fees up front. That way, they don't have to stay in jail because they can't pay — which would defeat the purpose of a personal bond.
With hundreds of defendants apparently not afforded the same luxury in Galveston County, Dennard said the extra inmates are ballooning the county jail population, which has grown 18 percent since January 2013, according to county data. At the commissioners' court meeting Tuesday, commissioners are expected to discuss contracts the Galveston County Sheriff's Office has drawn up with Jefferson and Limestone counties to ship excess prisoners to those jails, since Galveston County Sheriff Henry Trochesset is running out of room. (Limestone County's jail is operated by a private-prison company, LaSalle Southwest Corrections.)
Dennard says shipping off inmates to make room for more is simply not a solution, since the more efficient solution would be to stop jailing defendants who are unable to pay a fee.
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"We clearly have people in the Galveston County Jail who should not be there," Dennard said. "We're currently going through some heightened incarceration rates that are not based upon anything other than internal management, in terms of how folks in the justice system are administering the bail process. It doesn't make sense to take a situation where there's clearly a problem, where the majority of our misdemeanor defendants are being denied a personal bond based on inability to pay, then compound that problem by increasing the number of people being jailed."
The ACLU of Texas, which recently released a report decrying municipal courts' pattern of jailing people for inability to pay traffic fines, suggested that the legality of Galveston County's personal bond practices may be questionable.
Staff Attorney Trisha Trigilio said in a statement: "The only legal justification to hold someone in jail before trial — someone who is presumed to be innocent — is because of evidence that the person is likely to flee or pose some danger to the community. Failure to pay a fee is not evidence that supports jailing an innocent person. It’s evidence of low income."
Dennard proposed that county criminal-justice officials draft a policy allowing judges to release defendants who cannot pay the fee up front on the personal bond, then require them to return with the money once they have it. We will update this story if any of his proposed reforms are up for discussion at Tuesday's commissioners' court meeting.