A federal judge in Houston has issued a scathing denouncement of Harris County’s cash bail system, saying it is fundamentally unfair to detain indigent people arrested for low-level offenses simply because they can’t afford to pay bail, reports the Houston Chronicle. In a 193-page ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered the county to begin releasing indigent inmates as early as May 15 without posting cash bail while they are awaiting trial on misdemeanor offenses. The ruling–a temporary action that will stay in place until a lawsuit over the issue is resolved–will not apply to those charged with felonies, or those who are being detained on other charges or holds.
Monetary bonds have been used for generations across the country to ensure people arrested by police return for court dates, and many cities around the country have begun to rethink how bail should be set. The ruling came in a lawsuit filed last year on behalf of Maranda Odonnell, a single mother who was held for two days on a charge of driving without a valid license because she couldn’t pay the $2,500 bail. District Attorney Kim Ogg praised the ruling, calling it “watershed moment in Harris County criminal justice history.” He said, “From now on, people can’t be held in jail awaiting trial on low-level offenses, just because they are too poor to make bail…We welcome the ruling and will comply fully with it.”