Study: Inmates who can’t afford bond face tougher sentences

Criminal defendants too poor to bail out of jail prior to trial typically end up with a harsher punishment in Harris County than those with resources to pay for their freedom, according to a new study of more than 6,500 cases.

The study showed that the poor and others locked up weeks or months pretrial often pay in advance for alleged crimes – even when proven innocent – and usually end up with tougher punishments, too, according to an analysis by Gerald R. Wheeler, a Ph.D. researcher who served as director of the Harris County pretrial department from 1977-83. Wheeler and attorney Gerald Fry examined felony and misdemeanor cases processed in Harris County from January 2012 to June 2013.

Many defendants unable to post bond spent weeks or months in jail awaiting punishment even for relatively minor offenses, such as possession of small amounts of drugs or misdemeanor charges like trespassing.

For example, first-time felony offenders who were unable to post bond spent an average of 68 days in jail before having their cases resolved, the study showed. Those who remained jailed for drug possession – a common charge among Harris County jail inmates – were much less likely to win dismissals or deferred prosecutions than those able to afford to bail out, the study showed.

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Crime and punishment

A new study of Harris County pretrial detention and punishment in 6,558 cases shows:

1 African-Americans more often remained in jail before their trials during felony cases compared to white and Hispanic inmates.

1 Those who couldn’t afford bonds also received tougher punishment. Most served about a month in jail pretrial and then generally got more time than those released on bond.

1 In drug possession cases, 55 percent of those who remained in jail got deferred prosecution or had cases dismissed compared to 83 percent of those who posted bond.

Source: Project Orange Jumpsuit, an evaluation of effects of pretrial status on case disposition of Harris County felony and misdemeanor defendants.

“Regardless of age, ethnicity or color of skin of over 90,000 people annually arrested, what generally determines the defendants’ fate is his or her economic status,” Wheeler argues in the report, though he did not interview defendants about why they did not post bond.
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