45 Percent Don’t Show Up For Trial After Court Orders Release Of High-Risk Offenders

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Anders Hagstrom Justice Reporter

Houston police are being forced to release high-risk defendants within 24 hours of their arrest, and now, new data shows nearly half of them aren’t showing up for trial.

A June order from U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal declared that Harris County’s bail practices in Texas violated the Constitution by keeping poor offenders in prison simply because they couldn’t afford bail. Her solution was to mandate that all misdemeanor defendants be released for free within a day of their arrest. Critics claim Rosenthal’s solution is worse than the problem and ignores reforms that have already been put in place, The Texas Tribune reported Wednesday.

Just a month after Rosenthal’s ruling, Houston adopted a risk assessment tool for releasing pre-trial defendants. The system releases misdemeanor defendants who are found to have a low risk of skipping trial or re-offending, while charging bail for those who are deemed high risk.

Such tools are already the focus of heated debate in states like New Jersey, with critics claiming they over-release offenders. But even the assessment tool is more conservative than Rosenthal’s order, that is forcing police to release defendants regardless of their risk assessment score.

The result seems predictable: 45 percent of high-risk defendants don’t show up for trial, compared to 26 percent of low-risk offenders.

Elizabeth Rossi, a lawyer who supports Rosenthal’s order, blamed the trial dodging on disorder caused by Hurricane Harvey as well as police incompetence. Courts are handling the release and trial dates of low-risk defendants, however, police have been left to handle the high-risk defendants. Rossi attributes the nearly doubled rate of trial dodging to errors made by inexperienced police officers.

“Many people released were told wrong court dates. With the hurricane, people have gone to different court rooms — it’s a huge mess,” Rossi told the Tribune. “Some people have missed their court dates just because they’re still in the processing center.”

Rossi is arguing before the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to uphold Rosenthal’s order after it was challenged in October.

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