Houston’s Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional. The deal marks a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, the Houston Chronicle reports. The vote came after months of negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people pending if they couldn’t pay cash bail up front but allowed people with similar charges to await trial at home. Judge Lina Hidalgo, who championed bail reform in her 2018 platform, said the settlement addressed a longstanding harmful practice, citing Martin Luther King Jr.’s desire to judge people “not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
The 3-2 vote split along party lines, with Republican Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack voting against the measure. Commissioner Rodney Ellis said, “It took a long time for this system to be put in place — this oppressive system has existed for decades.” The settlement, which must be approved by a federal judge, installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It calls for transparent data collection that will allow the county to track what’s working and what isn’t. Under the new system, about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will be released on personal bonds and avoid pretrial detention, officials said. County officials estimated the new system will cost between $59 million and $97 million over seven years. Potential expenditures include an increased workload for staff and additional court resources, including creation of another “probable cause court”and an additional criminal court.