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.

John Wayne Ferguson: 409-683-5226; john.ferguson@galvnews.com or on Twitter @johnwferguson.

County spending on magistrate reforms

Galveston County has spent nearly $2 million on bail reform since 2016, according to the county. The money has gone to consultants, lawyers and new hires.

Description Spending
Meadows Mental Health Institute/Council of State Governments (consulting services) $390,000.00
Created five personal bond office positions $345,685.85
Magistrate Services (the county appointed and trained 10 people to act as magistrate judges, not including other officials that already qualify to do the work, including County Judge Mark Henry) $227,650.00
Contract with Paul Ready $227,330.62
Created three magistrate clerk positions $214,608.00
New bail review /right to counsel hearings $165,000.00
New software for magistrate court $157,470.00
Created Felony II prosecutor position in disrict attorney's office $125,764.69
Increased salary for Personal Bond Director $69,343.00
Created one magistrate clerk position $49,867.00
City of Hitchcock Interlocal (the county pays Hitchcock to appoint judges as magistrates) 24000
Total 1996719.158

Locations

(10) comments

John E Sr. Macrini

Civil Liberty : the state of being subject only to laws established for the good of the community, especially with regard to freedom of action and speech. "security measures can be taken without seriously compromising privacy and civil liberty" individual rights protected by law from unjust governmental or other interference. plural noun: civil liberties "growing threats to our civil liberties" The County has spent TOO MUCH money and adds an incentive to those who wish to disregard the law by playing the "Poor Card". Obviously recidivism plays into Bail amounts. Bail is insurance that the accused will appear in court. If the bail amount is waived because of electronic monitoring or drug testing , both of which can be altered at more cost to the system, the accused can pursue happiness by committing more crime while out courtesy of the ACLU. When the public sees disregard for the law from elected officials from Representatives,Governors, Attorneys General, and the like, it provides incentive for repeat offenses for those holding the Poor Card.

Jim Forsythe

A ankle monitoring program is one way we can be in compliance and also allow low risk people to pay for their cost of housing, until trial. A ankle monitoring program allows police to know a persons location, if they are drinking and such. A ankle monitoring program is only for the ones that qualify for it. This program reduces the number of housed at the jail that cost us of over $75 a day. The program cost between $10 to $20 per day, plus a $100 to $200 one-time setup fee. The monitors itself can cost the county $800 to $1,500 per device. The costs depend on , what kind of device they are wearing and if it has a breathalyzer strapped to it. We can pass the costs to those who wear one. Not all inmates are candidates for this type of program, but the ones that would be, could reduce our cost . If an offender steps outside the allowed range, he or she will be detected automatically by the device, alerting the authorities. Ankle monitors are also tamper-resistant and have the ability to alert authorities if the wearer attempts to remove it or damage it in some way. It may have a breathalyzer strapped to it.

Carlos Ponce

"A ankle monitoring program allows police to know a persons location...." until they cut it off and head out for parts unknown. An ankle monitor only works with honest people.[whistling]

Bailey Jones

"An ankle monitor only works with honest people." Same with bail. Same with personal recognizance. Your comment seems to assume that people who are arrested are guilty, when in fact, everyone who is arrested is presumed to be innocent. It's up to the state to prove otherwise. It's a constitutional thing.

Carlos Ponce

Bailey, if the monitored person has his ankle bracelet removed do you really think they're saints?

Bailey Jones

"Bailey, if the monitored person has his ankle bracelet removed do you really think they're saints?" It doesn't matter what I think, Carlos. Innocent until proven guilty. Simple concept. Fundamental to the American system of justice. Take a poor person, wrongly arrested, or even rightly arrested for a minor offense, place him in jail with a bond he can't pay. First he loses his job because he can't get to it. Then he loses his home and car because he lost his job. Why? Because conservatives can't stand the idea of not continuously punishing the poor. How does holding an innocent person in jail for days, weeks or months, serve justice? How many innocent people need to have their lives disrupted or destroyed in order to quell your fear of poor people? And it is ONLY poor people we're talking about, because everyone else (innocent or guilty) makes bail and walks around free.

Carlos Ponce

Like I posted: Ankle bracelets only work with honest people.

Jim Forsythe

Ankle monitors are also tamper-resistant and have the ability to alert authorities if the wearer attempts to remove it or damage it in some way.

Carlos Ponce

They can easily be removed, Jim. Look it up! Yes, it will send an alert but by the time authorities get there all they see is a broken ankle bracelet and the perp is long gone.

Jim Forsythe

Keeping people in jail will not help with the lawsuit, but a ankle bracelet program may help and also lets them to continue to be employed while waiting trial.----------- Texas rules say that if they remove a ankle bracelet they are required to serve the remainder of the sentence of confinement in county jail. No Bail!--------- Some of the rules. ((c) The court may require the defendant to pay to the community supervision and corrections department or the county any reasonable cost incurred because of the defendant's participation in the house arrest program, including the cost of electronic monitoring. (d) A defendant who submits to electronic monitoring or participates in the house arrest program under this article discharges a sentence of confinement in the same manner as if the defendant were confined in county jail. (e) A court may revoke a defendant's participation in an electronic monitoring program and require the defendant to serve the remainder of the defendant's sentence of confinement in county jail if the defendant violates a condition imposed by a court under this article, including a condition requiring the defendant to pay for participating in the program under Subsection).-------- Ankle monitors removed;1) it will be noticed immediately, and 2) there will be consequences - probation officer will get involved with the persons escape. they will have to pay for ankle monitor, which probably costs around $600-2000 depending on the brand and model. Not only will it send an alert notifying authorities it has been removed, but many states now have laws regarding tampering with electronic monitoring devices and in is even considered an escape. If you are sentenced to prison with an escape on your record your custody level is likely going to be elevated. If Texas does not have this law, we should.

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