A group of criminal justice reform attorneys is asking a federal court to order new bail-setting standards for Harris County that would require the release of thousands of suspects from the county’s jail and result in few if any pretrial detentions for even violent offenders.
The request stems from Russell v. Harris County, a federal lawsuit filed in 2019 over the constitutionality of felony bail practices. The plaintiffs are represented by attorneys with the Civil Rights Corps, including founder Alec Karakatsanis and Elizabeth Rossi, who have filed federal lawsuits on state bail standards in other Texas counties and across the country in a quest to end cash bail and pretrial detentions.
In a motion for summary judgment filed with Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal last week, the attorneys argued that current bail-setting procedures keep people in the county jail “solely because they cannot afford to pay money bail.”
Under the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, within 48 hours of arrest, suspects must be brought before a magistrate either in person or through videoconference for an individualized bail hearing. Magistrates are required to consider a defendant’s criminal history, the risk to public safety if released, and ability to pay bond. The district criminal court judges review bail orders and may either reduce or increase the amounts required for release, and on request from either defense attorneys or prosecutors may hold additional hearings to reconsider a defendant’s bail.
Records obtained earlier this year by The Texan indicate that the magistrates conducting bail hearings are selected by a panel of nine elected criminal court judges.
Following public outcry over lenient bail policies in Harris County that many observers associate with the county’s rise in crime beginning in 2019, the Texas legislature passed Senate Bill (SB) 6 last year prohibiting the release of certain violent or repeat suspects on personal recognizance (PR) bonds. The legislation also requires additional training for judges and magistrates and created an online public safety report to provide a more robust criminal history.
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