The Harris County Jail in downtown Houston is facing a class action lawsuit alleging that running an unconstitutional jail system takes advantage of poor arrestees charged with misdemeanors.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal denied a stay for the case citing that Harris County needs to implement long overdue reforms. The Harris County Jail is the biggest in Texas and books an average of 1,400 people a week resulting in overcrowding of the jail according to affidavits.

Local county officials and law enforcement view it as an embarrassment for the city including U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis. In 2015 and 2016 four inmates were beaten to death by fellow inmates which resulted in the Department of Justice opening the investigation that resulted in the pending class action lawsuit.

The newly elected Sheriff of Harris County seemingly supports the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.  “I believe that the current operation of the money bail system, including the sheriff’s active participation in that system, violates the United States Constitution. I believe that the sheriff should be a party to the current lawsuit, and I look forward to participating in the lawsuit in my official capacity…,” Sheriff Gonzalez said.

According to the complaint filed arrestees at the Harris County Jail are given bail amounts based on a set fee schedule that pays no regards to their ability to pay.

Misdemeanor Cases under the Bond Schedule

Bonds in Harris County typically start at either $500 or $1,000 depending on the level of offense (Class B = $500; Class A = $1,000).  The bond goes up based on prior convictions, but is capped at a $5,000 maximum.  For prior misdemeanor convictions, the bond goes up by $500.  Felony convictions result in a $1,000 increase.

Felony Cases under the Bond Schedule

The base level for bonds on felonies again depends on the level of offense:

  • First Degree = $20,000
  • Second Degree = $10,000
  • Third Degree = $5,000
  • State Jail Felony = $2,000

Misdemeanors typically do not change the amount but prior felony convictions will usually increase the bond by a degree.  For example, someone charged with a third degree felony who has a prior felony conviction will have their bond set at $10,000.  Under the Texas Constitution, a judge can refuse to set a bond in certain situations.  Defendants charged with Capital Murder, a felony with multiple priors (“True Habitual”), or a new felony while on bond for a felony or while on probation for a felony will find themselves set at “No Bond.”

The two plaintiffs in the case against Harris County are Robert Ryan Ford and Loetha McGruder. Ford could not pay his $5,000 preset bail after his arrest in May of last year for misdemeanor theft. He pleaded guilty at his arraignment five days later, was sentenced to time served and released. McGruder was arrested in May as well and charged with giving a false name to a police officer, a misdemeanor. A magistrate set her bond at the $5,000 cap. She couldn’t pay it. Four days later a Harris County judge reduced her bail to a personal bond and she was released.

“Individuals should not be held in our Harris County jail just because they cannot pay an amount of money set according to an arbitrary schedule. In my view, this practice violates the U.S. Constitution,” Sheriff Gonzalez said.

In July of 2016, the County implemented a new objective risk-analysis tool to determine whether to release them on a personal bond or set an amount for their bail.  A personal bond is a promise to appear before the court when the defendant is told and does not require paying money.  If someone is a flight risk or seem likely to commit a new crime, they probably will not be released without having to pay for a bond either with cash or through a bail bondsman.  Factors that hearing officers use to make the decision include whether the defendants have a landline, steady employment, a car and a permanent address.  I have seen firsthand what these changes are doing for defendants fearing that their only way out of jail comes with the price tag of a criminal conviction on their record.

Over the holidays last year, I decided to help people who could not afford an attorney and took appointed cases from one of the misdemeanor courts.  The bond officer I worked with was one of the sweetest ladies and bent over backwards to do whatever she could to help me get defendants released without having to pay.  The judge was just as willing to help with that goal as well. I saw a lot of smiling faces after my clients and their families learned they were going to spend Thanksgiving or Christmas at home with their loved ones.  Hopefully, the changes to the bond system will alleviate the overcrowding problem at the Harris County Jail and give lawyers the opportunity to help with their client’s cases instead of taking a plea deal just to get out.  We will see what the outcome of the federal lawsuit will bring.

If you or a loved one are having to deal with a bond or bail in Harris County, please give us a call at (713) 225-0650, and we will do everything we can to help.