There’s little room left to doubt whether Galveston County’s pretrial detention practices need reform.
Assessments from three different groups, including one commissioned by the county, have found that problems in the pretrial release program were keeping people locked up who should be out on bail, which was inflating the jail population and costing taxpayers more money.
That’s a serious problem for many reasons, not the least of which that it’s unconstitutional and could put the taxpayers on the hook for legal expenses and leaves the county vulnerable to coming under a reform order issued by some court or judge.
The situation is better than it could be, however, because county leaders have acknowledged there are problems and demonstrated the intention to make reforms, rather than getting defensive and digging in for a fight.
The most recent assessment came from the American Civil Liberties Union, which called for changes in the county’s pretrial detention practices and reforms in the county criminal justice system’s treatment of accused persons.
Among other things, the group found that arrestees booked into the jail were being held for days without counsel, without a meaningful bail hearing and without state-mandated procedures to release qualified arrestees for mental health treatment.
“The result is an overcrowded jail where more than 70 percent of people behind bars are innocent people awaiting trial,” Trisha Trigilio, a staff attorney with the ACLU, told the county in a letter.
The ACLU has been investigating the county’s legal system since at least March, according to emails between the county and organization.
While the union described the reforms it suggested as voluntary, county officials said meeting the requirements could help ward off a lawsuit from the organization.
Similar litigation against Harris County prompted a federal judge in April to rule the county’s bail bond practices unconstitutional and ordered certain reforms. Harris County appealed the ruling and it’s before the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.
The good news is that even before the ACLU launched its investigation, the county had been attempting to reform its bond system to protect the civil liberties of the accused and avoid litigation, said Paul Ready, an attorney for Galveston County who has been helping lead the county’s ongoing efforts to make criminal justice reforms.
“We see that there’s a problem and are trying to fix it,” Ready told a Daily News reporter recently.
In early September, county commissioners voted 4-1 on a resolution stating they were willing to spend as much as $2 million in 2018 to implement bail bond reforms.
The resolution also supported ending pretrial detention for people accused of misdemeanors and state jail felonies and releasing the accused on nonfinancial conditions, according to the resolution.
The commissioners court also would consider other ACLU proposals, the resolution said.
These sorts of disputes between the government and activist groups such as the ACLU often end up in court, cost taxpayers a lot of money and sometimes result in the loss of local control of local operations through judicial action.
Galveston County so far is taking a better path, one that could lead to reforms that make the activists happy, do better by people accused of crimes and save the taxpayers some money. The commissioners should be commended for that.
• Michael A. Smith