Haven't Memorized Any Phone Numbers? You May Wind Up Stuck in the Harris County Jail

Ten days had gone by, and the 19-year-old's mother had no idea her son had been sitting in jail.

The teenager was charged on September 12  with interfering with a public servant (his attorney did not provide details on what happened). His bond was set at $500, which he didn't have. With no criminal history, he would have been eligible for a personal bond so he could be released without paying. But there was one main problem: The guy didn't know any phone numbers.

He hadn't memorized his parents' numbers, or that of any friends or relatives—that was his cell phone's job, and his cell phone was already locked up with his other personal belongings. Since he couldn't call anyone to bail him out, and since Pretrial Services couldn't approve him for a personal bond without having references, he'd have to stay locked up. “It's just not our culture anymore to remember phone numbers,” the teen's attorney, Shelia Acosta, said. “Just knowing one number could make a huge difference.”

Or, another thing that could make a huge difference is if officers started complying with a new policy that simply allows defendants to jot down a few digits before their phones are confiscated so that they don't spend ten days in jail for something as petty as a 21st Century Problem. Since March, as part of a new pilot program, officers were supposed to be letting defendants write down numbers at the time they were booked as part of a pilot program. But according to Harris County Pretrial Services Interim Director Dennis Potts,  “let's just say it's been spotty at best.” Chief Public Defender Alex Bunin didn't think officers were intentionally not complying, but just being careless, not paying attention at the time a defendant was booked.  “They were told to follow the policy,” Bunin said, “but there was no way to know if they were or weren't.”

Maj. Steven Marino at the Harris County Sheriff's Office expects that will soon change. Starting Wednesday, receiving officers at the jail will be prompted on a digital form to ask whether inmates have a cell phone on them. If the answer is yes, then the defendant will be given a sheet of paper to write down his or her contacts. The only difference from the pilot program is that now, the Sheriff's Office can digitally track how many officers are asking defendants about their phones (verifying that they let them write anything down, however, is not tracked). “Obviously we want to track this so we can see how successful this is in getting people out of jail,” Marino said. “It's to our benefit that these guys get out of jail. It's a benefit to taxpayers, and it's a benefit to the sheriff's department.”

Given it costs $40 to $45 to house a healthy inmate ($285 to $300 if he or she is mentally ill), then Acosta's client's ten-day stay in jail—which might have been completely avoided if he could just call mom—cost taxpayers roughly $450. Bunin said officers find it to be a "big pain in the neck" to have to go back and get someone's phone from the sealed-up bag; apparently, so much so that it is not worth saving the thousands of taxpayer dollars.

And this is something several attorneys who spoke with the Houston Press said they are certain happens every day. Attorney Lionel Castro estimates roughly 20 percent of his clients can't remember any phone numbers. Attorney Robert Fickman said that allowing defendants to jot down numbers is a reform he and others have been pushing for years—and that the fact that it's only happening now makes it an underwhelming piece of progress. “They didn't do this without a lot of pushing and shoving and scratching and hollering,” he said. “Of all of the concessions that could be made, this is a drop in the bucket.”

Still, Marino with the sheriff's office hopes that making officers ask inmates about their cell phones on the digital form will help remind them to follow the policy. But there aren't any consequences if an officer fails to act in accordance with HCSO's own stated policy—one that's been in effect since March.

As for  the people who sat in jail as a result of officers failing to follow the rules, those consequences might range from losing a job, housing, or falling off the rails in school.
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Meagan Flynn is a staff writer at the Houston Press who, despite covering criminal justice and other political squabbles in Harris County, drinks only one small cup of coffee per day.
Contact: Meagan Flynn