It was an awkward scene in Harris County, Tx., where officials are defending themselves in federal court against a claim that they keep poor defendants locked up just because they cannot afford bail, the New York Times reports. On Wednesday a judge and the county sheriff testified for the other side. “When most of the people in my jail are there because they can’t afford to bond out, and when those people are disproportionately black and Hispanic, that’s not a rational system,” said Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who was elected after the case was filed. The defections of the sheriff and the judge were another sign of the growing skepticism over the fairness of the long-used system of money bail, especially when it is applied to those who cannot afford it.
The class-action lawsuit contends that on any given night, hundreds of people are in the Harris County jail on misdemeanor charges solely because they cannot make bail. If defendants with bail bond amounts of $500 or less had simply been released, the county would have saved $20 million over six years, according to a “very conservative” estimate by scholars at the University of Pennsylvania. Videos played in court this week showed hearing officers imposing bonds on mentally disturbed detainees, or telling homeless defendants they could be released without paying if only they had an address. In one video, an officer sets a $5,000 bond for a man charged with illegally sleeping under a freeway overpass.