3rd largest jail in US sued for 'wealth-based' detention system

701 Jail of the Harris County Sheriff's Office © Wikipedia
The Harris County Jail, the largest jail system in Texas and the third largest in the US, runs a strict detainment system that jails people too poor to pay bail, according to a new lawsuit.

People are detained at the Harris County Jail irrespective of whether they can afford a bail amount and without the assistance of a defense attorney or the ability to argue on their own behalf, according to a lawsuit filed by the group Equal Justice Under Law.

“Harris County’s wealth-based pretrial detention system violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution,” the lawsuit says. “It has no place in modern American law.”

The Washington, DC-based nonprofit is calling for an injunction to halt the current bail system, according to the Houston Press. The lawsuit names Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman and five bail-hearing magistrates who, the lawsuit alleges, rarely inquire if a detained person can pay the bail set for them, which is required by law.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Maranda O'Donnell, 22, a mother of a four-year old who was arrested for allegedly driving without a proper license and then jailed for two days at the Harris County Jail because she could not pay $2,500 bail. O'Donnell and her daughter live with a friend and rely on federal assistance for food. She was scheduled to begin a restaurant job, but her arrest put the position in jeopardy.

Attorneys for Equal Justice Under Law called for O'Donnell's release – she was let go from jail two days after her arrest – and a constitutional bail hearing during which a judge would consider her ability to pay the bail assigned to her. The nonprofit is asking for the same right to more than 500 detainees in Harris County, home of Houston, Texas' largest city.

Seventy-seven percent of detainees at the Harris County Jail have yet to be convicted of a crime but are held because they cannot afford to pay bail of as much as $5,000, the lawsuit says. In a given month, about 8,600 people enter the jail, with about 6,800 awaiting trial. Around eight percent of those awaiting trial are there for misdemeanor offenses, according to ThinkProgress.

Furthermore, from 2009 to 2015, 55 people held in the Harris County Jail who could not pay bail have died while waiting for trial, according to the Houston Chronicle. The latest such death occurred in early April, when Patrick Brown, who was being held for a misdemeanor theft charge, was killed by two other inmates.

"Harris county has really perfected and, in a lot of ways, epitomized the efficient processing of human beings in and out of cages," Equal Justice Under Law attorney Elizabeth Rossi told the Houston Press. "Shining a light on a place like Harris County really highlights the pervasiveness of money bail and the thoughtlessness with which criminal injustice systems throughout this country keep people in jail cells just because they're poor."

Rossi said that in the around 20 bail hearings she and her fellow attorneys have witnessed, proceedings last about one minute and defendants are not allowed to speak. When one inmate asked to say something during a hearing, the magistrate said: “You can talk to me all you want, but it’s not going to change the outcome. I’m setting it according to the schedule."

"Everybody who’s involved in that process, from the judge to the deputies, just looked at it as another routine doldrum chore they have to do, and no one is thinking about the individual standing in that red square, maybe in an orange jumpsuit, who’s about to be told whether he’ll be released to his family or not based on whether he can pay an arbitrary dollar figure," she added.

In March, the US Department of Justice took notice of the many jail systems around the US that follow similar 'pay-or-stay' bail schedules. The department sent guidelines to local courts denouncing debtors' prisons following its investigation of the police department and municipal court system in Ferguson, Missouri, site of the police shooting of an unarmed black teenager in 2014 that stoked unrest throughout the US. That investigation found that, for years, Ferguson city, police, and courts officials have “worked in concert to maximize revenue at every stage of the enforcement process.”

The March DOJ letter to local courts said that funding municipal operations on revenue gleaned from fines is unconstitutional, and that courts should not jail people without proving the detainee "willfully" refuses to pay a fine. The guidance urged courts to seek alternatives to locking up those unable to pay.

Prior to the release of the DOJ's investigation of Ferguson, Equal Justice Under Law was part of a lawsuit challenging the city's municipal jailing system. Since the beginning of 2015, the group has filed 17 lawsuits in the US challenging cash bail systems. The nonprofit has won eight cases thus far while not losing one, the Houston Press reported.

Harris County has begun to address some of the issues raised in the lawsuit. A pilot program that would offer a defense attorney at all bail hearings has been approved, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson told the Houston Press last week. In addition, Harris County Jail has added more pretrial supervision officers while judges have signaled desire to reform the risk-assessment test used in the county to determine bail.