Settlement reached in lawsuit over Houston-area bail system
HOUSTON — A settlement that ensures most misdemeanor defendants are quickly released and don’t languish in jail has been reached in a federal lawsuit over the bail system in the most populous county in Texas, officials announced Friday.
The bail system in Harris County, where Houston is located, had been deemed unconstitutional by US District Judge Lee Rosenthal, who said it violated equal protection rights against wealth-based discrimination for misdemeanor defendants.
Rosenthal’s ruling stemmed from a 2016 lawsuit against the county that alleged misdemeanor defendants who were too poor to post bail for release remained jailed because of their poverty.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of several misdemeanor defendants, including a woman who was jailed for two days for driving without a valid license because she couldn’t afford her $2,500 bail.
The settlement’s consent decree is “historic and it’s a huge step forward for the county and the country,’’ said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the county’s top administrator. The county had initially fought the lawsuit, but after Hidalgo took office in January, officials worked to settle the case.
‘‘We essentially are going from an unconstitutional two-tiered system of justice to one that is fair and makes people safer, and in the process we’re hopefully setting an example for what communities all across the country can do,’’ Hidalgo said.
The lawsuit is part of a broader push in the United States to reform a bail system that civil rights groups say unfairly keeps poor defendants, particularly minorities, locked up and forces many to plead guilty to get released.
‘‘This is a watershed moment in the bail reform movement,’’ said Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney with Civil Rights Corps, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that is among the groups that sued the county.
Similar lawsuits have been filed in other states.
The settlement and its consent decree still have to be approved by county commissioners, who are set to vote on it Tuesday. Rosenthal will also have to approve it.
The agreement will solidify changes Harris County had already put in place after Rosenthal’s ruling. Those changes stated most misdemeanor defendants would be released within 48 hours on personal recognizance bonds.