Harris County approves historic bail deal, ends ‘irreparable harm’

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Bail deal reached—Harris County’s settlement over ‘unconstitutional’ bail system

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement  — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

The county spent $9.1 million over three years mounting a legal fight against the federal civil rights lawsuit which continued after Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices violated equal protection and due process, causing “irreparable harm” to thousands of people presumed innocent.

However, county officials, prompted by a Republican majority in misdemeanor court, appealed her rulings twice. A new slate of judges and county officials elected in November withdrew the appeal and began discussing a joint settlement.

This is a developing story. Return to the Houston Chronicle for updates.

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