At a press conference Thursday, State Senator Rodney Ellis took a few moments to respond to Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack, who this week said he thinks Ellis should “shut up” about criminal justice reform.
Radack, however, probably couldn’t have chosen a worse time to voice that opinion.
Harris County has just been sued by the national organization Equal Justice Under Law for its bail system, which essentially keeps poor people, who have not yet been charged with crimes, sitting in jail because they can’t afford to get out. The group claims that, since bail-hearing magistrates rarely ever stray from a strict bail schedule, and almost never consider poor people’s ability to pay as is required by law, the system is unconstitutional.
Ellis, thrilled to hear that the county had finally come under fire for what he called a “modern-day debtors’ prison,” drafted a statement voicing his firm support for the suit and his desire to see this system fully reformed. Not everyone liked what he had to say, however.
At a commissioners court meeting Tuesday, Radack read part of Ellis’s statement aloud, beginning: “Sen. Ellis recently said that ‘Harris County’s over-reliance on the inefficient and ineffective use of mass incarceration as a means of dealing with low-level and non-violent offenses continues to result in some of the highest jailing and incarceration rates in the U.S. and the world. … It’s an approach that wastes countless taxpayer dollars, has been ineffective at making our communities safer, and has a particularly devastating effect on communities of color and the poor.”
Never mind all that stuff about a system that punishes presumed-innocent poor people and charges taxpayers for their life-ruining jail stays. Radack wanted to get to the real issue here: that Ellis’s statement about Harris County’s incarceration rate is incorrect. It’s true: We may be the third-largest jail in the country, but our incarceration “rate” isn’t among the highest.
“I think it’s time that Mr. Ellis either shuts up, or states the right facts,” Radack said. “But that’s my personal opinion. Which I’m entitled to. To my knowledge."
Outside the criminal court building downtown Thursday, Ellis joined the Texas Organizing Project and many other advocates to denounce the county's money-bail system and also make it clear that, well, no, he’s not going to shut up about this — but he will get his stats right.
Here are some: Roughly three-quarters of people sitting in the jail right now have not been convicted of crimes and are there because they can’t afford to get out. Just over half of them have been accused of non-violent or non-serious crimes, and according to one recent study, a quarter of people charged with misdemeanors can't afford even a $500 bail. (Over on the municipal side, the city of Houston has its own set of problems when it comes to jailing poor people: See this week's cover feature by Michael Barajas, "Get A Ticket While Being Poor In Houston?")
Part of the reason there are so many pretrial detainees is that judges and magistrates in Harris County only give personal bonds to roughly 7 percent of defendants. When Pretrial Services — which interviews defendants and assesses the risk about whether they will fail to show up to court — recommends a personal bond for someone, magistrates simply ignore it 64 percent of the time for people charged with misdemeanors and 98 percent of the time for those charged with felonies, according to Pretrial Services's 2014 annual report. Instead, magistrates prefer to follow their handy bail chart.
Ellis painted the crowd a picture of what the money-bail system ends up looking like in practice: “Now, look, I want to put a visual on this so you get it,” Ellis said. “Mr. [Robert] Durst allegedly cut somebody’s head off and threw it in the Gulf of Mexico. A bond was granted: $2.5 million — $250,000 [10 percent paid to a bondsman], which he had. He posted bond and he got out. And you know what happened after that. In a neighboring county, Sandra Bland did not have $500, so she couldn’t post bond — and you know what happened to her.”
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Ellis and the Texas Organizing Project presented several recommendations they had for Harris County criminal justice officials — who, earlier this week, declined to comment about the lawsuit. They urged county officials to trash the bail schedule immediately. They urged them to stop ignoring Pretrial Services’ personal bond recommendations and to give the personal bonds to all deserving, low-risk, non-violent defendants. They supported conditional release, perhaps with ankle monitors or frequent supervisory check-ins — anything but money bail. And they urged the county to provide everyone lawyers at bail hearings (something Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson told the Houston Press this month the judges have agreed to do).
Last, Ellis urged the county to just give up fighting this lawsuit and to freely decide to reform the bail system on its own.
“We don’t need to spend additional taxpayer dollars simply to defend a system that is morally reprehensible,” he said.
Given that Equal Justice Under Law has filed 17 of these exact lawsuits against jurisdictions across the country, has won eight times and has never lost, perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad idea.