A lawsuit currently before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans could determine the fate of cash bail in the United States.
Earlier this year, Chief United States District Judge Lee Rosenthal ruled that the cash bail policies and practices of Harris County, Texas, violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution by detaining defendants who are unable to make bail or pay a bondsman. Judge Rosenthal issued a preliminary injunction banning the county from holding misdemeanor defendants for more than 24 hours if they cannot afford bail. Under the injunction, over 4,000 people charged with misdemeanor offenses have been released from pretrial detention.
But Harris County is doubling down to defend its current bail system, citing recent reforms and calling the ruling a step too far. Last Tuesday, lawyers for the county made their case before the federal appeals court, saying the Constitution does not guarantee affordable bail.
If the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upholds Rosenthal’s ruling, it will lead to fundamental changes in the cash bail system across the nation. According to the Huffington Post, it was unclear on Tuesday which way the judges were leaning.
Elizabeth Rossi, an attorney for Civil Rights Corps, one of the organizations behind the lawsuit, told the Texas Observer that the ruling, if upheld, would significantly reduce the amount of innocent people that plead guilty to avoid pretrial detention.
“Wealth-based pretrial detention is a key driver of mass incarceration,” Rossi told the Observer. “Ending the practice of keeping people in jail due to their poverty would make it more difficult for prosecutors to coerce guilty pleas and would help ensure that, whether rich or poor, arrestees can exercise their right to a fair trial and the presumption of innocence.”