When a federal judge ruled this year that Houston’s Harris County wrongfully held poor misdemeanor defendants in jail while awaiting trial, she placed the responsibility of issuing her mandated bail orders in the unpracticed hands of the county sheriff’s office. The county courts, which usually make bail decisions, have focused their efforts on reforms they implemented a month after the judge’s ruling took effect, the Texas Tribune reports. That combination has led to confusion within the state’s largest pretrial system. The blame for any failure shifts, depending on who’s talking. One thing is clear: More than 40 percent of the defendants released by the sheriff under the court-mandated bonds aren’t showing up to their hearings.
In an injunction that went into effect in June, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal mandated that virtually everyone accused of misdemeanor offenses — which include shoplifting and driving with an invalid license — must be released from jail within 24 hours of their arrest, regardless of their financial ability to post bond. She sided with the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the state’s most populous county, saying its bail system unfairly detained poor people while releasing defendants who could afford to pay their bonds. The order, under review by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, was complicated by the county’s own reforms. In July, the county switched to a nationally accredited risk-based bail system where low-risk defendants are usually released on a no-cost “personal bond,” whether they have money or not. Other, higher-risk defendants must generally pay a bond amount for their release or stay in jail.