I He(art) Justice 2017: Criminal Justice Reform

Criminal Justice Reform

Two key areas of our criminal justice work include bail reform and ending debtors’ prisons. Both focus on leveling the playing field so that the measure of justice meted out by Texas’ criminal courts is not determined by a defendant’s income level.

Emphasis Area I: Bail Reform

Problem

Research shows that people are being held in Texas county jails even though they have not been convicted of any crime. They are being detained as they await trial but are left in jail because they cannot afford the bond amount set in their cases – in some cases, courts are using “bond schedules” which set bonds based solely on offense, to determine bond amounts. The use of bond schedules to determine bond amounts, with no inquiry into or findings about ability to pay, violates the Fourteenth Amendment.

Solution

Texas Appleseed is working to reform the current bail bond system, so that low-risk, low-income defendants do not languish in jail simply because they cannot afford bail – decisions of confinement should be based on risk level, not the amount of money a defendant has. 

Background Statistics

  • Approximately 3 in 5 of the individuals held in Texas county jails have not been convicted of any crime.
  • In Harris County, defendants from the poorest zip codes were more than twice as likely to be detained pretrial than those defendants from the wealthiest zip codes.
  • Jailing low-risk defendants before trial has a negative impact on public safety, making it more likely they will commit a new crime in the short term and the long term.

Personal Story

Angela, who has bipolar disorder and has struggled with poverty, drug addiction and homelessness much of her life, was accused of stealing $105 worth of school uniform clothing from Old Navy for her grandchildren. Despite the fact that she was not considered a flight risk or threat to safety, her bond was set at $150,000 because she had previously pled guilty to shoplifting charges. Angela spent two months in pretrial lockup at Dallas County Jail because she could not afford to post the bond — far more than the value of all her worldly possessions, and an amount typically assessed for much more serious charges. Taxpayers spent more than $3,300 to keep her locked up. She eventually made it into the courtroom. The judge found her indigent and sentenced her to four years of community supervision, with mental health treatment.

Emphasis Area II: Debtors' Prisons

Problem

Each year, many Texans end up in jail simply because they cannot afford to pay fines and fees associated with minor traffic tickets or other fine-only misdemeanors. This is true despite the fact that the Supreme Court ruled this practice unconstitutional more than 40 years ago. Persons of color are disproportionately represented in those who are jailed. 

Solution

Texas Appleseed is working to ensure that existing law is enforced and, where needed, clarified so that this practice ends.

Background Statistics

  • More than 95 percent of all arrest warrants issued in Texas in 2015 were for fine-only misdemeanors.
  • In 2014, in seven Texas counties alone, more than 24,000 individuals were booked in jail for nothing more than a fine-only offense.

Personal Story (for Reference Only)

Ashley is a 26-year-old single mother of a 6-year-old and a 4-month-old. Even though she worked full time, she and her children lived below the poverty line and received food stamps. In July 2015, she was arrested for unpaid traffic tickets. She was making sporadic payments when she could, and was not aware she had outstanding warrants. The arresting officers told her she would probably be released within 24 hours. They let her make calls to set up temporary childcare arrangements and tell her boss she would be missing a day of work. They then took her to jail. Though she begged the judge to release her on a payment plan so she could care for her children, he jailed her for 21 days. She was not given an opportunity to make any calls, so she was unable to tell her boss she would be gone longer than expected or tell her landlord her rent would be late. She could not even find out where her children were. Luckily, an attorney with one of our partner organizations was able to secure her release after a week. If she had been kept the full 21 days, she would have lost her job, her housing and possibly even her children. The failure to inquire into her ability to pay prior to jailing her was illegal, but the law is often ignored. 

Additional Interest Areas

Dismantling the School-to-Prison Pipeline

Helping Homeless Youth

Fair Financial Services

Fair Housing

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