Harris County Commissioners Approve Historic Agreement Consent Decree will remedy constitutional violations in the county's misdemeanor criminal justice system
(Houston, TX) - July 30, 2019 - Today, Harris County Commissioners Court approved a proposed consent decree intended to settle a more than three-year-old lawsuit challenging the county's system of misdemeanor criminal justice. The agreement, approved by a vote of 3-2, effectively eliminates a system of misdemeanor criminal justice in which people with money who were charged with misdemeanor crimes were permitted to go free, while those without financial means were forced to stay in jail.
"This landmark agreement is a historic step toward building a fair, effective criminal justice system that can act as a model for the nation," said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo. "This settlement is smart - it ensures that we are spending our resources on real public safety, rather than filling our jail with people who are only there because they're poor. Today marks a proud moment on our path toward justice."
"This settlement is a strike against the new Jim Crow and a defining moment in the nationwide struggle to end an oppressive system of mass incarceration that has unfairly harmed communities of color for decades," said Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis. "If Harris County, Texas - the third largest county in the country - can take such a bold, transformative step toward leveling a two-tiered system of injustice that privileged the wealthy over the poor, it can be done anywhere."
"I am pleased that this lawsuit is now behind us, defending it was unnecessary and wasted millions that could otherwise gone to supporting crime victims!We can now focus on Harris County becoming a national leader in civil rights reform," said Harris County Precinct Two Commissioner Adrian Garcia."As a lifelong law enforcement professional, I know that the best way to keep our county safe is to have a multi-tiered approach that allows our District Attorney and law enforcement to concentrate on the most dangerous, while enhancing a criminal justice system that is fair and just."
The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit, Maranda Lynn ODonnell, et al. v. Harris County, Texas, et al., in May 2016. Not much more than a year later, U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal found that "Harris County's [bail] policy and practice violates the Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses of the United States Constitution." This finding was subsequently upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit in 2018.
The consent decree locks down some rules that the Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judges had already been implemented, under which a misdemeanor arrest no longer means automatic jail time. The vast majority of misdemeanor defendants will be released on a personal recognizance bond, while certain defendants - charged with certain crimes, such as those related to family violence, DWI, or other similar violations - will face a judge for a possible bail determination. Unlike the previous system, however, those defendants will be guaranteed representation by legal counsel at that stage.
The decree also establishes new procedures that will help ensure that misdemeanor defendants who have been released show up for court when required - and if they miss a court date they can reschedule it more simply and easily. It also requires the county to collect data - looking at factors that cause people to miss court dates and other challenges - so that the system can be continuously improved. A federal monitor will be appointed to oversee implementation of the decree for seven years.
Judge Rosenthal has scheduled a Fairness Hearing for August 21, 2019, at which time she will review the decree with the intent of entering a final order in the matter.