In a small room at the Galveston County jail on a Wednesday evening in June, Shari Goldsberry listened to a lawyer explain how the man on the other side of the glass couldn’t afford to pay his bond.
The man had been jailed earlier in the day on a gun charge and his bond set at thousands of dollars. He was arguing for a reduction to hundreds, which he could afford, so he could go free while awaiting trial.
Goldsberry asked the man where he lived, and whether he had any relatives nearby. She reviewed a pile of paperwork that included details about the charges and his previous arrests.
After the short meeting, no more than 10 minutes, Goldsberry rejected his request.
The man was returned to a cell, and Goldsberry began hearing the next bail-reduction argument.
It’s a process that Goldsberry, or one of eight other Galveston County magistrate judges goes through every 12 hours — at 7 a.m. and again at 7 p.m.
The twice-day-bail review hearings have been happening for about nine months and are among changes costing about $3 million the county has approved to reform its jail and bail system in response to a lawsuit the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas filed in April 2018.
The hearings have become so frequent and routine, Goldsberry refers to them as a “rinse, wash and repeat” job that tends to follow a pattern.
Defense attorneys argue for bail conditions other than incarceration — requiring routine drug tests, scheduled check-ins with the court and electronic monitoring, for example. Sometimes those are granted, but most often it’s pay the cash bond or go back to jail.
It’s a matter of manpower, Goldsberry said. Most of the options require supervision, which the county lacks the resources to provide.
For most of the arrested, leaving jail without posting a substantial cash bond just isn’t an option, she said.
But under the shadow of the lawsuit, those options might soon change, county officials said.
BACKGROUND ON LAWSUIT
In its 2018 lawsuit, the ACLU accused the county of running a bond system that discriminates against poor people by forcing them through a system that sets bond amounts too high, leaving them jailed for extended periods of time, while wealthier people, even those charged with more serious crimes, go free.
County officials had worked for more than a year to reform its bail practices before the ACLU filed its lawsuit, which also named the district attorney’s office and district court judges.
More than a year after the lawsuit was filed, county officials argue they’ve spent millions of dollars to change their system into something that is affordable and will stand up to a constitutional challenge.
“We’re trying to shorten steps,” said Paul Ready, the county’s chief legal counsel and architect of the changes to the pre-trial systems. “Simplify paperwork, simplify process. And mostly the goal is minimizing interference with people’s lives when they have to deal with the justice system.”
WHAT’S BEEN DONE
County officials say they’ve taken meaningful steps to address problems the lawsuit raised. People move through the system faster, and get more opportunity to provide information about their financial status before bond hearings, officials said.
The most obvious step has been increasing the number of magistrates and doubling the frequency of bond hearings.
Goldsberry and the eight others work a rotating schedule so bond hearings can happen twice a day. The magistrates are mostly people with law degrees — lawyers or municipal court judges— but no such legal training is required.
One of the magistrates is Tyler Drummond, County Judge Mark Henry’s chief of staff. Henry also is empowered to be a magistrate, but isn’t part of the rotation.
The twice-a-day hearings began in October 2018, Ready said. That came months after the county hired the magistrates and five people to conduct financial review hearings before magistrate hearings.
Ready said he was proud of how quickly the county had instituted reforms, and that he’d been granted a mostly free hand to recommend them. Often, the only time Ready’s recommendations come up in public meetings, was when commissioners approved spending on some new fix.
“If you want something done at that speed in government, someone has to have a free hand,” Ready said. “Every action of the commissioners court takes three weeks. If they want to be involved in an interim step, except for checking off a final solution, it’s a three-week delay every time.”
Since 2016, the county has budgeted about $3.5 million for reforms in the magistrate processes, according to an estimate Ready provided to The Daily News. Of that amount, the county had spent about $2 million, Ready said.
WHAT THE ACLU WANTS
But as the county moves to spend even more money on long-term reform, The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas argues more needs to be done.
The most important thing is getting clear buy-in from the county’s district court judges, said Trisha Trigilio, lead counsel for the ACLU.
Without an official, signed policy change approved by the judges, the changes Ready and county commissioners make are potentially temporary, Trigilio said.
“They’re refusing to change the rules at all and insisting they don’t have the power to do so,” Trigilio said. “Which, frankly, is the main reason that the lawsuit is continuing. The people with the power to make the formal change aren’t making it.”
District Court Judge Lonnie Cox, one of those named in the lawsuit and the county’s former administrative judge, said the union is overstating the power of the district court judges.
“They’re saying that we’re policymakers, and at least I say, and the district court judges say we’re not policymakers in any of this,” Cox said. “The code of criminal procedure limits what we can do in these cases and it limits us to appointing attorneys on the case, and that’s it.”
He added that the district court judges have not participated in a group organized by the county to come up with reforms to the pretrial system, known as the coordinating council, on the advice of attorneys.
“Our attorneys advised us to stay away from that because they’re public meetings that specifically involve issues with the ACLU lawsuit,” Cox said. “We were potentially in a position to be talking about the case while the case was being presented in the court.”
The union’s objections to the county’s changes are not limited to the reticence of the county judges, Trigilio said.
In letters and court filings drafted by the ACLU earlier in the year, the group said that the changes made by the county don’t address the underlying issues at the heart of its lawsuit against the county: that magistrates don’t use enough judgment when deciding on bonds and that people accused of crimes aren’t provided with enough legal advice at the beginning of the bail process.
“Obviously holding hearings faster, holding hearings that are meaningful, holding hearings with counsel, those are all steps in the right direction,” Trigilio said.
“You can only hold someone in jail if there is no adequate alternative, if there is no less restrictive condition of release,” she said. “If you’ve got judges saying ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about you’ it’s not really making any finding about why it is that we’re saying there’s no alternative to jailing this person.”
The ACLU has asked a federal judge to impose an injunction against the county that would require people booked into the jail to be provided with a defense attorney at their initial bail hearing.
Ready called that “extremist.”
“Those people hadn’t requested appointed attorneys yet,” Ready said. “They want us to have the appointment process completed before the request is made. In what world is that even possible?”
Trigilio called that a dodge. Other courts in Texas and in other states have managed to provide attorneys at all court hearings, she said.
“It’s not really up to the county to debate the wisdom of providing counsel,” she said.
A federal magistrate judge had not ruled on the injunction as of Friday.
WHAT COMES NEXT
Increasing the number of people doing magistrate work isn’t the full extent of the county’s changes to the system, Ready said. The county has made two recent major moves signaling its next major steps at reform.
First, the county hired a new director of its personal bond office, which is responsible for evaluating and tracking people who seek to be released from jail, or who have already been released on bond.
Aaron Johnson will be responsible for expanding the office into something similar to a probation office, only one that works to monitor people before they’re convicted, Ready said.
Over the coming months, the office will work to create a tool that uses data to estimate the risk that a person will abscond or commit more crimes while out on bond, Ready said. Johnson has already helped develop similar systems in California and Kansas, Ready said.
Ready envisioned one possible system in which people on bond agreed to wear GPS monitors that track their location, and ensured they meet the requirements of their release until trial.
For its part, the ACLU has suggested a different pretrial strategy: creating a text-messaging system that would alert people on bond that they have a hearing coming up. Such systems have proven effective in other places, and cost “pennies on the dollar” compared to other plans, Trigilio said.
The county doesn’t have an exact figure for how much the office expansion will cost the county.
The expanded office would require hiring up to 30 new county employees, and the office is one of the central reasons the county is attempting to purchase a 10-acre parcel across from the jail, Henry said.
The county hasn’t budgeted for such hiring yet, and it will be up to Johnson to develop proposals for the office and its needs.
The land, which the county sold in 2011 for $3.1 million, is needed to hold the expanded office, Henry said.
County commissioners might vote on the land purchase as soon as Monday.