Bail: Justice system accused of targeting minorities

JUAN A. LOZANO | 11/7/2016, 9:39 a.m.
For university student Bryan Sweeney, the three days he spent at the Harris County Jail in Houston before he could ...
Bryan Sweeney, a Texas Southern University student, recalls his three days in the Harris County Jail in Houston before he could pay his $10,000 bail for two misdemeanor charges. David J. Phillip

HOUSTON – For university student Bryan Sweeney, the three days he spent at the Harris County Jail in Houston before he could pay his $10,000 bail for two misdemeanor charges, including for driving with a suspended license, cost him a chance to graduate this summer and register for classes. But Sweeney, an accounting major at Texas Southern University, said he’s lucky, as others in a similar situation might never have been able to pay.

“It’s pretty mentally difficult to fight a misdemeanor from inside of jail,” said Sweeney, 27, who described the tough choice many poor defendants face. “I can get out and all I got to do is say, ‘I’m guilty,’ or I can sit in jail, sacrifice my freedoms and fight a misdemeanor case for the next six months that I can’t afford,” he said.

Criminal justice reform advocates say U.S. bail systems unfairly keep low-income defendants – many of whom are minorities arrested for nonviolent crimes – in jail for too long, which not only leads to overcrowding but can affect the outcome of their cases. In Harris County, the nation’s third most populous, local officials say they are aware of the problems and recently implemented a $5.3 million plan, including a $2 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, to jumpstart reforms.

“Low-level, nonviolent offenders should not be rotting in jail waiting for a trial. That’s just wrong,” Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson said.

However, some advocates are skeptical. They say previously discussed reforms have never come to fruition, and they are now focusing on litigation as the best way to address the problem.

More than 50 percent of misdemeanor defendants in Harris County are detained until the conclusion of their case, many of them due to their inability to post bail, according to a July study by the University of Pennsylvania Law School. The study also found that misdemeanor defendants who remained jailed pretrial were 25 percent more likely to plead guilty. County data shows that of the 20 percent of pretrial defendants charged with low-level, non-violent crimes like drug possession and theft, 51 percent are African American and 21 percent are Hispanic.

Among the initiatives Harris County is working to implement is a new pretrial risk assessment tool judges will use in determining bail decisions. An algorithm helps identify if a person is at risk of committing a new crime or failing to return to court if released on bail. The system, which judges will start using later this month, is intended to ensure low-risk defendants are diverted from the system as early as possible.

Reform advocates have long been critical of local judges using bail schedules – guides that set dollar amounts for bail based mostly on the current charge – and not releasing more low risk, non-violent defendants on personal bonds, in which individuals are released without having to pay bail. In Harris County, 5.8 percent of all defendants were granted personal bonds in 2015, including 8.5 percent of misdemeanor offenders. By comparison, nearly 88 percent of pretrial defendants are released on a personal bond in Washington, D.C.