PR Bonds Plummet in Harris County, Texas as Jail Overflows
by Gary Hunter
Republican judges elected on promises to be tough on crime and the absence of federal oversight have been cited as two reasons why Houston, Texas jails are once again dangerously overcrowded.
Less than a decade ago, the Harris County Jail was operating under the scrutiny of federal authorities as the result of a lawsuit; during that time the jail was forced to correct a variety of constitutional problems, including overcrowding. One way the judges dealt with the overcrowding issue was to release low-risk arrestees on personal recognizance (PR) bonds.
In 1994 about 9,000 people were released on PR bonds in Harris County. Over 1,800 of those released were facing low-level felony charges. By 2004, that figure had dropped to only 109 felony defendants released on PR bonds. Even more dramatically, the number of misdemeanor defendants who were required to post bonds rather than being released on PR bonds increased more than 30,000% (from 7 to 2,114) from 1994 to 2004.
In 2007, the Harris County pretrial services department interviewed 36,176 candidates for PR bonds. Of those interviewed, judges granted only 153. By contrast, Travis County (Austin) interviewed 31,877 candidates in 2006 and granted PR bonds to 19,218. Tarrant County (Fort Worth) and Bexar County (San Antonio) also make liberal use of PR bonds.
“I’m very aware of how our numbers stack up against the rest of the country and how low they are,” said Carol Oeller, Harris County’s Director of Pretrial Services.
Harris County judges give a variety of reasons to justify why they grant so few PR bonds. Judge Brock Thomas stated he is willing to grant PR bonds to those who are willing to plead guilty at their first appearance.
Judge Jim Wallace said bonding companies are better suited for that sort of issue.
Judge Caprice Cosper blamed the defendants for coming into court with too many prior criminal convictions.
While those reasons may sound diverse, they have a common denominator: Each line of reasoning describes the plight of poor people caught up in the criminal justice system.
“What this means is that if you are really poor, you have zero chance of getting out of jail before your trial,” acknowledged Pat McCann, president of the Harris Country Criminal Lawyers Association. “If you’re a poor person in jail, you’re screwed.”
In short, people with money can post bond, get out of jail and fight the charges. A person without sufficient funds must sit in jail for months waiting for a trial. By that time many have lost their jobs, their property and everything else of value. Rather than lose everything, they simply plead guilty to avoid spending months behind bars.
“It’s just insidious,” said defense attorney David Jones. “What’s guiding [the system] now are the values of a bureaucrat.”
Jones’ comments allude to a rapid drop in PR bonds following a pre-election advertisement that referred to the practice as being soft on crime. The ad was placed by a conservative lobbying group and had an immediate effect on how predominantly Republican judges did business. Another contributing factor may be the influence of the bail bond industry, since fewer PR bonds translates to a greater need for paid bonds offered by bonding companies.
The result of the decrease in PR bonds and consequent increase in the Harris County Jail’s population has been a return to the draconian conditions that previously plagued the facility. As of May 2008, the Harris County Jail was holding 11,000 prisoners in a facility designed to hold a maximum of 9,400. The city is also paying the West Carroll Detention Center in Epps, Louisiana $38 a day to house 600 prisoners, which amounts to over $8 million annually. [See: PLN, Oct. 2008, p.28].
“We’re rapidly approaching maximum capacity,” said Capt. John Martin, spokesman for the Harris County sheriff’s department.
The county had anticipated a drop in the jail population at the end of summer 2007. That decrease never materialized. Now county officials are considering sending another 130 prisoners to the Epps facility.
Inspections conducted in 2004 and 2006 determined that the Harris County Jail was out of compliance. [See: PLN, Jan. 2006, p.1]. Now the county is under pressure again as the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division opened a new investigation into jail conditions in March 2008.
Harris County recently paid a national research organization to assess the problems with its current jail detention practices. One of the researchers’ immediate recommendations was to increase the use of PR bonds – a common-sense solution that appears to be politically infeasible.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, grintsforbreakfast.blogspot.com
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