If Mom Doesn't Answer Her Phone, You Might End Up Stuck in Jail

You better hope your friends and family are good at answering their phones when unfamiliar numbers show up on the caller ID.

Because apparently, in Harris County, you may not be released from jail — even if a judge approves a personal bond and you're innocent of the charges — if people you trust don't pick up the phone when Harris County Pretrial Services gives them a ring, looking for someone to vouch for you.

That's what happened to Latanya, a pregnant mother who was booked in jail in June on what her attorney described as a “bogus” assault of a family member charge involving her brother — a case that was ultimately dismissed. (Her attorney, public defender Amalia Beckner, asked that we not use her full name.) Even though a judge agreed Latanya didn't belong in jail as she fought the case and approved a personal bond, Beckner said that before the case was dropped, Latanya spent another week behind bars for what appeared to be no reason, as far as Beckner could tell.

Turns out, officials wouldn't release Latanya from jail just because her mom didn't answer the phone when Pretrial Services attempted to verify references Latanya gave them, Beckner soon discovered. Beckner said that, when she herself tried to call Latanya's references, her mom's mailbox was full, and the other number Latanya gave for her uncle didn't appear to work. According to Pretrial Services Director Dennis Potts, if a judge approves the personal bond but specifies “pending verification,” and pretrial supervision officers can't verify the defendant will have a stable place to live awaiting trial, then that person is out of luck.

But to Beckner, the case raised the question: Is that reason enough to hold someone in jail?

“A lot of people may not have these high-level markers of stability,” Beckner said. “A lot of our clients, especially if they have mental health issues, are sort of living on the margins as it is already, and having a few people in your life who will answer the phone doesn't always work out immediately. But that doesn't necessarily mean the person won't show up for court.”

In Harris County, only 7 percent of people are lucky enough each year to be let out on a personal bond awaiting trial, instead of having to buy their way out with cash bail — something Latanya, like a large percentage of misdemeanor defendants, couldn't afford to do. Over the years, Harris County criminal courts have maintained a notoriously stubborn reputation for their lack of willingness to trust even low-level, non-violent defendants to show up for court if they are let free to their families before trial — a reputation that judges have recently indicated they are trying to change.

One of the changes they're making in an effort to give more people personal bonds is the implementation of a new “risk assessment tool” — a tool magistrates and judges use to decide whether you should be released to your family or should stay in jail while awaiting trial. The new tool is slated to go into effect sometime this fall, Potts said, but whether it could have prevented the pesky phone number situation that Latanya found herself in is not yet clear.

Latanya was assessed by Pretrial Services using the current tool, which various criminal justice officials have described in the past as “outdated” and “unreliable.” Exhibit A: You lose points if you don't have a landline. Latanya was lucky enough even to remember those phone numbers, because as we reported last fall, some people in this digital age can't recall even their own mother's digits because that's their smartphone's job, and so they lose points for that too. It's a barrier that, as we reported then, barred one 19-year-old immigrant charged with a misdemeanor from having a chance at a personal bond. For ten days, his mother had no idea what had happened to him.

Among other things, the current risk assessment tool also asks what neighborhood you live in and where you work — subjective factors that could lead to a racial or class bias against you, said the developer of Harris County's new risk assessment tool, Matt Alsdorf with the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The new tool, instead, will only include objective factors such as your prior criminal record, prior failures to appear in court, whether your crime is violent and your age.

What happens after that, however, such as whether Harris County will continue to block people from getting out of jail because of some phone number problems, is up in the air. Potts said officials haven't yet solidified the details.

We asked Potts the question that Beckner had — whether something outside of a low-risk defendant's control, like the failure of a friend or family member to answer the phone, should be reason enough to hold someone behind bars.

After a long pause, he said, “That's a tough one to answer…I don't know...I understand that, if someone doesn't show up, you have to find a way to locate them. Is it sufficient reason [to keep someone in jail]? That's a good question.”

Potts said it will likely be up for discussion as officials consider reforms this fall.
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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