On April 28, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas entered a preliminary injunction to immediately halt Harris County’s practice of jailing people charged with misdemeanors solely because they are unable to pay bail. On March 31, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis filed an amicus brief in support of a preliminary injunction, explaining that Harris County’s bail structure “constitutes a blatant and unlawful penalty for poverty” that is not only unconstitutional, it has a disproportionately harmful effect on Black, poor and disadvantaged Harris County residents.
“Harris County’s bail system is unconstitutionally discriminatory and morally indefensible – and we now have a federal court ruling telling us so,” Ellis said. “It’s time for us to fix a broken justice system that favors the privileged and punishes the poor for being poor. We must stop investing countless tax dollars defending the indefensible and start advancing reforms that treat all people equally and fairly under the law. It will take us very little money to implement reforms and cost a heckuva a lot to fight them.”
The LDF/Ellis brief was filed in support of ODonnell v. Harris County, a lawsuit that seeks an immediate end to the practice of wealth-based detention of people charged with misdemeanors in Harris County. Because Harris County bail determinations are based on a predetermined schedule that does not account for ability to pay bail and does not offer a timely opportunity to address inability to pay bail, poor people charged with misdemeanors are held in jail solely because they are unable to pay bail.
“One’s punishment should fit their crime, not their bank account,” said Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation for LDF. “Harris County’s bail practices unlawfully create a cycle of poverty for those who cannot afford the cost of their freedom. When our justice system criminalizes poverty, we all pay.”
Today’s opinion from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal directly cited the LDF/Ellis brief, saying:
“An amicus filing by Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis and the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund notes that African-Americans make up 18 percent of Harris County’s adult population but 48 percent of the Harris County Jail’s adult population. A 2011 study found that in Harris County, 70 percent of white misdemeanor defendants obtain early pretrial release from detention, but only 52 percent of Latino misdemeanor defendants and 45 percent of African- American misdemeanor defendants do so. The defendants did not dispute this data.”