Several civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and the Southern Poverty Law Center, are throwing their support behind a ruling that Harris County can’t hold in jail low-level offenders who can’t afford bail.
This week, the groups filed briefs supporting the decision issued in April by federal judge Lee Rosenthal.
The lawsuit is on stand-by because Harris County has appealed Rosenthal’s ruling to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
However, Micah West, an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, says the stakes are very high because “everyone in the country is looking to this decision as precedent and for what Harris County will do as a model going forward.”
As the lawsuit is on hold, Harris County is modernizing how it deals with bails.
Just last month, judges started using a new assessment program that helps them decide if bail should be offered.
Among other things, it evaluates factors such as previous convictions and failure to appear in court.
Also in July, lawyers with the county’s Public Defender’s Office began providing 24/7 assistance in bail hearings.
“Anyone who wants a representation can have it. Most defendants agree to it and we’re there to advocate for them,” Alex Bunin, who runs the Public Defender office, told Houston Public Media.
The oral arguments about Harris County’s appeal are scheduled for October.