Historic Harris County Decision

On April 28th, Judge Lee H. Rosenthal issued an unprecedented 193-page ruling, holding that the Harris County money bail system is unconstitutional. The judge considered hundreds of exhibits, thousands of videos, hundreds of thousands of records, and numerous live expert and factual witnesses over an eight-day trial. She concluded that the Harris County’s bail system unfairly punishes the poor by ignoring individuals’ ability to pay bail. The court would arbitrarily set bail based and often ignored recommendations to release non-violent people on personal bonds.

In closing, Judge Rosenthal wrote, “In Harris County, they may be homeless. They may lack family, friends, and [people in their lives willing to bail them out]. Some are, no doubt, of bad reputation and present a risk of nonappearance or of new criminal activity. But they are not without constitutional rights to due process and the equal protection of the law.”

Going forward, Harris County will have to ask all those arrested on misdemeanor charges about their financial situation. If a person is eligible for release, they must be released on unsecured money bond. The decision will apply to over 50,000 misdemeanor arrestees in Harris County every year.

“The opinion destroys the supposed justifications of the American wealth-based pretrial detention system in devastating factual and legal detail,” stated Alex Karakatsanis, the lead attorney for Civil Rights Corps, which represents one of the plaintiffs. “In my view, it is a turning point for our criminal legal system.”

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