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Lawsuit Could Mean Fewer Defendants Sitting In Jail Awaiting Trial

(Ryan/Getty Images)

A lawsuit making its way through the federal courts could radically change the way the legal system across the country handles bail for defendants awaiting trial.

A group of inmates filed suit against Harris County, where Houston is located, maintaining bail regulations that keep poor defendants in jail pending trial because they cannot pay are unconstitutional. The inmates won their case in the lower court, but it is now working its way through the appeals process.

Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston Law Center, says a money-based bail system wrongly forces indigent defendants to remain locked up until their trial. "People who cannot afford the bail, who are low risk, what ends up happening is that they'll lose their jobs, they'll lose their homes, their kids will be without care," she states. "And so, their lives fall apart pretty quickly. So, the person who's stuck in jail will feel tremendous pressure to just plead guilty."

The federal court ruling ordered Harris County officials to assess defendants on their risk to the community. In its decision, the court noted that 75 percent of all inmates in Texas jails have not been convicted of a crime.

But the Harris County Attorney appealed the ruling, saying the order goes too far in forcing him to release defendants before trial. Thompson says if the decision is upheld, it could change the way courts operate across the country. She says courts in several states already have adopted a system of risk-based assessments of defendants. "In a time when there really wasn't a better way to do things, that system might have made some sense and might have been constitutional," she states. "What the courts are saying today is that things have changed, and there is a more modern approach."

Thompson says statistics show that when the system assesses defendants on risk, it benefits both the courts and the community. "It brings your jail costs down," she points out. "It brings lots of costs to the criminal justice system down, including future crime. "It does a better job of protecting us because we're not focusing on who has money but on risk."

Attorneys in the case made oral arguments before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans last week. That court's ruling is not expected for several weeks.

The case eventually could go the U.S. Supreme Court.

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