Amarillo attorney finds new push for bail reform

Amarillo attorney finds new push for bail reform
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA
Source: KFDA

AMARILLO, TX (KFDA) - A federal appellate court recently upheld findings that Harris County's bail practices unconstitutionally discriminate against poor misdemeanor defendants.

The ruling strikes a chord with Jeff Blackburn, who views the issue as a sore spot in our area as well.

The civil rights lawyer continues his push to reform what he calls unjust bail practices.

Blackburn describes the misdemeanor system in Potter County as one of the worst in the state.

"I'd say we're definitely winning the race to the bottom," said Blackburn.

He claims the county sets bail in a way that keeps people in jail, simply because they are too poor to pay their bail bonds.

"If you're poor and you don't have money you just stay in jail," said Blackburn. "This is exactly the kind of system we have here and in most of Texas. That's not the law, it's not the constitution. The constitution says we don't use an arrest as a way of punishing somebody if they haven't been found guilty yet."

Blackburn said the objective should be to guarantee offenders show up in court, not just pay money to a bondsman.

"We don't need to be paying bondsman thousands of dollars for misdemeanor crimes," said Blackburn.

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Misdemeanor offenders at the Potter County Detention Center currently make up about 10 percent of the jail's population.

"No I don't feel like that's an overabundance," said Potter County Sheriff Brian Thomas.

Sheriff Thomas said it doesn't mean a misdemeanor charge is the only charge they're in for.

"They could have a felony charge here somewhere down the road too along with that," said Thomas.

He said there are some people that could bond out of jail, but don't for various reasons. But he does agree that there are some who can't afford it.

"Is there a couple of them that are back there that just can't afford to bond out of jail? Yes I'm sure there are," said Thomas. "Is that right? It depends on what the charge is."

Blackburn said the problem our area has is there is no public defenders system.. 
"We have individual appointments that are made to lawyers who don't operate in a centralized way in which there's no accountability and no oversight over," said Blackburn.

However, there is currently a discussion about developing a system.

"The thought is that is if we had a public defenders office we could reduce that number off the court appointed, pay them for somebody that could actually be their attorney through the public defenders office," said Thomas. "And also maybe have more control over what they're doing with those clients."

Blackburn hopes the Harris County case will bring momentum to the conversation that has already started in our area.

"I hope that this Harris County case serves as a wake up call on the bail issue and I hope that that wake up call continues to get people alive and energetic about other areas of reform that we need to be engaged in," said Blackburn.

Sheriff Thomas said they are in the early stages of discussing the public defenders office and the initiative would cost millions of dollars.

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