5th Circuit court partially upholds controversial ruling impacting Harris County bail system

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HOUSTON - The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals pulls in the reigns in a decision that impacts the way those accused of certain misdemeanors in Harris County get bail.

Fourteen county judges argued to an appeals court that federal Judge Lee Rosenthal overstepped when she ordered that certain defendants who can't afford to pay be released on no-cost bail in cases where a person with the means to make bail would be immediately released.

“What is constitutional is giving an individualized hearing within 48 hours and if someone is in for those 48 hours, it's not a violation of equal protection or due process for them to be in waiting for that 48 hour hearing,” Harris County Attorney Melissa L. Spinks said.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed and ruled a stay on that part of the order while a class action lawsuit against the county makes its way through the courts.

Critics of the Harris County bail system alleged it filled jails with indigent defendants, supposedly presumed innocent until proven guilty, that couldn't afford to pay their bail prior to their trial.

“The deciding factor should not be how much money you have, but those two elements, whether you are a continuing danger, serious danger, to society, or whether you are a flight risk, not whether you have some money in your pocket,” explains civil rights attorney Randall Kallinen.

Harris County says they're making moves to improve criminal justice in the county. They've added public defenders available when bail is set, added more judges available 24/7 to execute these individualized hearings and have implemented a new risk assessment tool.

But for now at least, in some misdemeanor cases, if you can't pay that first 48 hours, you may still have to stay.

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