NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Commissioner Rodney Ellis File Brief To Stop Harris County Practice of Jailing People Unable to Pay Bail For Misdemeanor Charges

Recently, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis filed an amicus brief in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas in support of a preliminary injunction to immediately halt Harris County’s practice of jailing people charged with misdemeanors solely because they are unable to pay bail.

The issues of jailing people for misdemeanor offenses and bail reform have been major points of discussion, not only in Harris County, but all across the state of Texas, especially during the current 85th Legislative Session in Austin.

Of course, the Forward Times reported on State Rep. Garnet Coleman’s filing of HB 2702, better known as the “Sandra Bland Act,” which in place at the time of her traffic stop, would have protected her rights and her life by simply giving her a ticket and letting her go, versus taking her to jail for no reason and having her spend the entire weekend in jail for a bail of only $500.

Also during this Legislative Session, State Rep. Andrew Murr (R-Junction) and State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) filed HB 3011 and SB 1338 respectively, in a bipartisan attempt to modernize Texas bail law and implement a risk-based bail system, which would result in using jails for those who truly present genuine public safety risks, as opposed to jailing people who pose no threat to the general public whatsoever.

The brief filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Harris County Precinct One Commissioner Rodney Ellis explains that Harris County’s bail structure “constitutes a blatant and unlawful penalty for poverty” that is not only unconstitutional, but has a disproportionately harmful effect on Black, poor and disadvantaged Harris County residents.

“Justice cannot depend on how much money you have in the bank,” said Commissioner Ellis. “But poor people all across Houston – Texans who are supposed to be presumed innocent – far too often get second-class justice just because they can’t afford to pay bail. Harris County’s abusive system privileges the privileged and punishes the poor. This discriminatory bail system is an affront to justice and must end now.”

The brief was filed in support of O’Donnell 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 made 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.

“The constitution applies equally to the rich and the poor,” said Christina Swarns, Director of Litigation for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “So no one should lose their freedom, their job, and/or their home just because they don’t have the money to pay bail for a minor offense.”

Founded in 1940, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund is the nation’s first civil and human rights law organization and has been completely separate from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) since 1957—although the NAACP Legal Defense Fund was originally founded by the NAACP and shares its commitment to equal rights.

Each year thousands of Texans are arrested and booked into jail each year for very minor traffic misdemeanor violations which range from anything form speeding to failure to having small amounts of marijuana in their possession to failing to signal a lane change, like Sandra Bland.

Many of these issues don’t receive the attention they deserve, so the Forward Times will continue to keep its readers up to date on what is happening in Harris County and across the state of Texas concerning these bills and laws, and encourages its readers to reach out to lawmakers in Harris County and across the state of Texas to express their support of bail reform.