Opinion | Locked Up for Being Poor
Unjust. "Harris County, which includes Houston and has the third-largest jail system in the country, fails on both counts, Judge Rosenthal said. Judges there require defendants to post bail, regardless of ability to pay, likelihood that they won’t return to court or how minor the charges are. As a result, poor people charged with a misdemeanor end up stuck behind bars, while people with money who are charged with the same offense walk free. The county’s lawyer defended this policy by arguing that poor defendants — who are disproportionately black and Latino — stay in jail not because they can’t buy their way out but because they “want” to be there, especially “if it’s a cold week.” Judge Rosenthal called this despicable claim “uncomfortably reminiscent of the historical argument that used to be made that people enjoyed slavery.” The real explanation is straightforward: As cash bail has fueled a politically influential, multibillion-dollar industry, courts are relying on it more, and people who can’t afford it are getting locked up at ever greater rates. Judge Rosenthal noted that only two decades ago, less than one-third of people in Texas jails were awaiting trial; today, it’s three-quarters. Forty percent of all misdemeanor defendants in Texas are locked up until their cases are resolved, at a huge cost to the state, and most because they can’t afford bail."