Innocent until proven guilty.
Most would assume that being innocent until proven guilty means you could not be put in jail until an actual legal finding of guilt. That’s not exactly how it happens.
People arrested can be put in jail before trial, and in the case of some very serious crimes, and with appropriate safeguards and checks on the system, we are all fairly comfortable with that.
In Harris County, Texas, however, whether you remain in jail pending trial all too often depends upon whether you can afford to pay bail. Those safeguards and checks on the system have failed.
The system’s design—setting bail according to a schedule outlined by judges, without regard to whether a particular amount is reasonable given the accused’s ability to pay, during a group hearing where defendants are not represented by counsel—means that someone accused of a violent crime who can afford a million dollar bail might go free, while someone in jail for a nonviolent misdemeanor might spend weeks in jail until friends and family can come up with the funds to pay.
Three key facts, for those who like to follow the money:
- Not including booking fees, it costs Harris County $75 per day to hold someone in the Harris County Jail.[i] In March 2016, Harris County taxpayers paid $513,075 per day to house individuals not yet convicted of a crime.
- In the 2015-16 Fiscal Year, Harris County taxpayers will spend more on the county jail than on all county services and construction programs combined.[ii]
- The money bail system in Harris County allows for bail bond companies to prosper on the backs of the poor. In 2012, the for-profit bail bond industry in Harris County collected at least $34.4 million dollars in fees.[iii]
It is likely costing Harris County more money to keep people in jail because of their inability to make bail than they are receiving in any bail funds that are paid.
In other words, the county pays to violate people’s rights.
And before you get smug because you live in one of Texas’ other 253 counties, chances are yours is spending big to violate people’s rights as well:
- More than half of the men and women imprisoned in Texas’ county jails have not been convicted of the offense for which they were arrested.5 These 35,000 individuals are still awaiting trial. At an average cost of $63 per person per day,6 our current system is costing taxpayers more than $2 million daily.
Eesha Pandit, Houston-based writer and author, just published a powerful and thorough review of this perversion of justice that every Texan should read.
Because we are all paying for this, even if we don’t believe it is right.
And because we have the power to change this, by demanding accountability from our elected judges and prosecutors, and voting them out if they won’t respect human rights and dignity.
[i] Per Harris County Sheriff’s Office.
[ii] Harris County Budget, FY 2015-16. Taxpayers will spend approximately as much on County Jail Operations and Medical Costs ($238.5 Million) as they will spend on all Infrastructure & Systems (including Construction Programs, Facilities and Property Management, and Technology) and County Services (including Pollution Control, Public Health Services, Public Libraries, Community Services, MHMRA, and Children’s Assessment) combined ($239.95M).
[iii] See Gerald R. Wheeler & Gerald Fry, Project Orange Jumpsuit Report #2, Harris County’s Two-Tier Justice System:
Longitudinal Study of Effects of Harris County Felony and Misdemeanor Defendants’ Legal & Extralegal Attributes on Pretrial Status and Case Outcome (Apr. 23, 2014) at 4, available at http://www.pretrial.org/download/research/Harris%20County’s%20Twotier%20Justice%20System%20(Project%20Orange%20Jumpsuit)%20-%20Wheeler%20and%20Fry%202014.pdf
[Wheeler & Fry, Report #2]; Michael Barajas, Will Lawmakers Reform the System That Keeps Poor, Legally Innocent People in Lockup? (Sept. 25, 2015), available at http://www.houstonpress.com/news/will-lawmakersreform-the-system-that-keeps-poor-legally-innocent-people-in-lockup-7788583 (quoting bondsman saying that “being poor raises a red flag”).
For more on supporting a strengthened pretrial system, improved indigent defense practices, and fair court and conviction practices, go to the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition website.