Houston Provides Little Help for High-Risk Defendants

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Harris County’s pretrial system in Houston provides little supervision for indigent defendants who are most at risk of failing to appear in court, while offering support to those at lower risk, the Houston Chronicle reports. The result is a criminal justice system clogged with a growing number of failures to appear, months after a federal judge ordered the release of indigent defendants who can’t afford to post bail. Officials said the releases pose a threat to public safety. Critics say the county is deliberately withholding pretrial supervision that could help defendants stay out of trouble.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal required most indigent misdemeanor defendants be released from jail within 24 hours, setting up a system that requires the sheriff’s office to release defendants on unsecured bonds if magistrates refuse to give them personal bonds. Personal bonds do not require cash up front and include pretrial services and assistance. Judges grant or deny them based on their assessment of the defendants’ criminal history and the likelihood they will appear in court. Defendants who do not receive personal bonds will be transferred to jail, where the sheriff will determine if they can afford to post bail. If not, they are released on unsecured bonds, which do not include supervision. Since Rosenthal’s ruling in June, 8,000 misdemeanor defendants have been released on unsecured bonds, yet more than 40 percent failed to appear for subsequent court hearings. The rate is nearly double that of defendants with personal bonds and far higher than the 8 percent failure rate for those with bail bondsmen providing surety bonds. Defense attorneys say the county could fix the problem by expanding the use of personal bonds. “These people on unsecured bonds are the people who need the most help, and they’re getting the least,” said attorney Franklin Bynum.

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