Feb. 18, 2020 - County Commissioner Rodney Ellis and lawyer Alec Karakatsanis highlighted the hurdles it took for Harris County to reach a monumental settlement that went away from a cash bail system during a recent talk at the University of Houston Law Center.
The discussion was presented by the Criminal Law Association, and Professor Sandra Guerra Thompson, the Newell H. Blakely Chair and the director of the Criminal Justice Institute.
"Alec is the founder of the non-profit Equal Justice Under Law and Executive Director of Civil Rights Corps," Thompson said. "His organization has sued jurisdictions around the country. I think it is fair to say it has been wildly successful in creating enormous upheaval in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, where they're having to confront the fact that when you force people to pay money to get out of jail, it violates their rights."
The settlement received final approval in November of last year. At the time, Ellis said it would make local communities safer and would create a more fair system.
"After decades of harmful injustice and a three-year legal battle waged in defense of our core principles of liberty, equal treatment and due process for all--no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin--Harris County's unsafe and discriminatory misdemeanor cash bail practices are finally ending," Ellis said. "In place now will be a system of equal justice that balances safety and due process.
"U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal's final approval of the landmark settlement will better protect our communities, help bring an end to the devastating mass incarceration of people of color, and uphold the rights promised to us all in the Constitution. Instead of being a ground zero for an oppressive system of mass incarceration, Harris County will now be a model of criminal justice reform for the entire nation to follow."
Karakatsanis provided general commentary on the prison system, and pointed to a number of statistics that demonstrate the criminalization of people of color or individuals in poverty.
"In the five years before we sued Harris County, 55 human beings died because they couldn't pay money bail, and 132 tried to commit suicide the year before we sued," Karakatsanis said. "The most basic things we take for granted every day, we are depriving human beings of that in the Harris County Jail.
"We arrest 12 million human beings every single year in this country. We put metal chains on their bodies and we process them into this massive bureaucracy. We are incarcerating people five to 10 times the rate of other comparably wealthy countries around the world which is unprecedented. The first thing you have to understand about the modern American money bail system is that it's a mechanism for this bureaucracy to churn cases through like an assembly line."
Significant progress was made in 2019 after a dramatic shift in judicial leadership in Harris County.
"We eventually had this eight-day trial in federal court and U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal issued a 193-page opinion, eviscerating any kind of factual or legal foundation for Harris County's money bail system," Karakatsanis said. "A few years later, the leadership in Harris County changed. Fifteen new judges ran on a platform of bail reform and won their elections, and enabled us to reach a landmark settlement. That settlement is going to mean about 18,000 or 19,000 people every year are going to be free with their families very quickly after arrest."
Ellis closed the discussion by commending Karakatsanis’ career path, and encouraged student attendees to consider public defense work or other roles that protect vulnerable members of society.
"When he finished law school, he took a very elite Harvard education and instead of deciding to go make money with it, he chose to be a public defender," Ellis said. "After doing that for a number of years, the Harvard Law School Foundation gave him a grant of $250,000 to go out and try some theories, civil rights litigation and advocacy and see if he could make a dent in some of the criminal justice problems in this country. He chose to go to Alabama and Mississippi and began suing counties over their bail systems.
"I want to make the point that so many of us go to law school just to go make money. I hope some of you will pursue careers in public service, public office or some other arena."