Changes to El Paso County’s misdemeanor cash bail system could be on the horizon after the settlement of a landmark bail lawsuit against Texas’ most populous county.
A federal judge in July approved a bail reform agreement aimed at fixing Harris County’s bail system, which a federal judge had found unconstitutional because it discriminated against poor defendants.
Let’s say you get arrested for criminal trespassing, a misdemeanor in Texas, and bail is set at $500. If you’ve got money, you’re out of jail. If not, you stay in jail to await trial or you might plead guilty just so you can get out and get back to your life.
Jay Jenkins, a project attorney with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition in Austin, said that the Harris County settlement is on the radar of counties across Texas. It would be up to El Paso County Commissioners Court to make any changes to the cash bail system.
“My guess is that the Harris County settlement and litigation will affect every county in Texas,” Jenkins said. “There’s going to have to be some reflection on how courts operate and bring bail provisions and practices back into constitutionality.”
Opponents of Texas’ cash bail system say the practice drives more innocent individuals to plead guilty to crimes they did not commit and say cash bail does not guarantee a defendant will return to court for trial.
“The idea that we have to keep someone in jail before the state has had an opportunity or the time to convict them of anything is a really fundamental thing that’s been degraded over the last 20 or 30 years, to the point where we barely recognize it and our instinct is that if you’ve been arrested for something, you’re guilty of it,” Jenkins said.
There are 991 individuals in the El Paso County jail who are awaiting trial, making up about 33% of the jail’s population of 2,229 individuals, according to data from the November 2019 population report from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards. This includes people arrested on both felony and misdemeanor charges.
The Harris County settlement found that cash bail can “deprive individuals of their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection, impose high public costs, and ‘exacerbate the racial disparities in pretrial detention and posttrial outcomes.’”
The settlement also found that up-front cash bail “does not meaningfully promote public safety or appearance in court.”
As part of the settlement, Harris County agreed to beef up its pretrial support systems, publicly release pretrial data and set misdemeanor bail at no more than $100 for the majority of misdemeanor arrestees, with arrestees to be promptly released on a personal bond or other non-financial conditions.
The Harris County case only applies to misdemeanor cash bail, but other places, like Dallas County, have faced lawsuits that have found both misdemeanor and felony cash bail practices unconstitutional.
But not everyone is on board with bail reform efforts.
In a 2017 post on their website, El Paso-based Apodaca Bail Bonds urged readers to oppose bail reform, saying it would lead to public safety issues.
“Those for the bail reform feel the bail system is unjust and that people should be released on their word that they will go to court and finish their case. Let’s be real… this is going to cost us… Us, the law-abiding citizens,” the post reads.
Jenkins said there are cases that are being dismissed for individuals who pled guilty because they were not able to afford bond and were later found to be innocent.
“I think to the public, everyone assumes the system is working great and that only people who belong in the system end up there,” Jenkins said. “But it’s really starting to have a huge impact.”
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 534-4422, ext. 105.