A federal appeals court ruling will lead to dozens of inmates at a Houston jail being released, after judges found the county’s bail system discriminated against the poor.
Harris County, encompassing the city of Houston, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to deliver an emergency order blocking the original decision, upheld by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals today.
Justice Clarence Thomas didn’t find the request worthy of full consideration – he rejected it outright, without referring it to the full court or leaving any sort of comment.
The New York Times reports Harris County now has little choice but to comply with U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal’s order to begin releasing inmates.
From Tuesday onward, the county jail will begin releasing eligible inmates in a ‘trickle.’ The majority of persons affected by the ruling are impoverished men and women who were unable to pay bond or post bail.
Rosenthal wrote in her decision that the bail system violates the due process rights of individuals, given that many unable to afford bail were incarcerated for days for relatively minor offenses. Since those predominately affected were low-income earners and unemployed persons, the judge opined that Harris County was, in practice, discriminating against a social class.
A spokesman for the county jail, Jason Spencer, said inmates will have to sign affidavits attesting to their financial situations before being released.
“I think some people are expecting a massive release, but it’s really just sort of steady,” said Spencer.
“We’re going to operate under whatever the latest order is,” he added.
The New York Times gives an example of a similar law which is under review in Georgia. It was brought under scrutiny after a man who couldn’t muster a $160 bond was jailed for six continuous days.
The federal Department of Justice has argued in the past that bail systems are unconstitutional. Citing Supreme Court case law, the agency has said inmates who haven’t yet been prosecuted shouldn’t be jailed just because they can’t pay a fine or fee. The Supreme Court had previously written that such systems are unconstitutional when alternatives aren’t considered, as they “effectively [deny] equal protection to one class of people within the criminal justice system.”
“It’s a huge problem all over the country,” said Alec Karakatsanis, an attorney for the Civil Rights Corp. “It got to the point where 450,000 human beings are in American jail cells every night just because they can’t make a payment. It’s terrible abuse to subject someone to that inhumane treatment.”