Bail activist lawyer’s “Hurricane Harvey” explanation as to why Houston’s bail system is a complete failure does not hold water.
By Guest Columnist Jeff Clayton, Executive Director of the American Bail Coalition
The Texas Tribune published today an article on the state of affairs of the bail reforms in Harris County as a result of the work of bail reformers, in this case a cadre of upstart civil rights lawyers suing the robes off the Criminal Court at Law Judges and a rich Houston billionaire trying to “moneyball” the criminal justice system by providing Harris County free new bail-risk computers to figure out who should be released from jail. The results can be described in one word: chaos.
Now, we realize that of all the people Federal Judge Rosenthal is releasing via the Sheriff, 45% are thumbing their nose at the system and not coming back to court. Compare that to a failure to appear rate on surety bonds of only 5.4%. We have also seen of the same population released by Rosenthal engage in new crime at a rate 440% higher than those who post bail, either cash or surety, alarming results for Houston.
Enter bail activist plaintiff lawyer Elizabeth Rossi to help us understand why all of this could be happening. Rossi argued it was not the “culture of non-accountability” that the Harris County Attorneys are arguing is leading to the chaos, but instead that the numbers have to be “taken with a grain of salt” because, upon further reflection it was actually Hurricane Harvey that caused the chaos in the bail system. “With the hurricane, people have gone to different rooms,” Rossi said.
Elizabeth Rossi, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said those numbers should be taken “with a huge grain of salt” because of complications in setting up the new release system and a criminal justice system that has been scattered after Hurricane Harvey.
The problem, however, is that Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, TX from August 17 to September 2, 2017. In data released prior the Hurricane covering June 6 the numbers are about the same: 35% of the defendants released by the sheriff pursuant to the order failed to show up for court. So while the Hurricane could have caused some impact, the culture of non-accountability was more than cemented as hurricane-proof prior to the landfall of the mighty cyclone. Plus, it’s hard to miss court when Harvey closed the court house for weeks.
So while the numbers continue to trend up, we think there’s a little more going on than simply defendants going to the wrong courtroom because of Hurricane Harvey. Blaming the Hurricane instead of an activist federal judge’s order or the new billionaire provided free risk computers is like people blaming cyclones on things like immoral behavior or some punishment imposed by the maker. These forces instead have created chaos that an attorney representing the county forecasted would actually be worse on the Harris County community than Hurricane Harvey itself.