by DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. & LEE A. CASEY
May 31, 2017, in the National Review
The Constitution protects arrestees against “excessive bail.” This guarantee, however, has never been understood to provide indigents the right to a zero-dollar bail simply because they cannot afford more. That, however, is the clear import of in ODonnell v. Harris County, a recent decision by a federal district court in Houston. Unless reversed on appeal, such a rule would require the release of any arrestee, irrespective of the seriousness of the charges being brought, who claims that he or she cannot afford bail — even if the arrestee has a history of failing to appear for trial. This would have wide-ranging implications for how the balance is struck between the rights of criminal defendants and society at large. And policy consequences aside, another judge-engineered right would enter the Constitution’s firmament.
The ODonnell case is part of a recent wave of lawsuits asking unelected federal judges to require the release of arrestees without any bail if they cannot afford it, regardless of what the Constitution says or what such a sweeping abolition of money-bail requirements might portend. Indeed, for many individuals who are accused of a crime, facing months or years in jail, the temptation is great to skip court and avoid justice, and money bail can be a powerful incentive to check this temptation.
When judges set bail, they may obviously consider an arrestee’s ability to pay. But the Constitution does not require this to be the only factor. In fact, Texas law requires judges to consider not only an arrestee’s ability to pay but also their flight risk, criminal history, and danger to the community. Indigent arrestees who present little flight risk are frequently released without posting money bail. But public safety is not served by releasing, with no financial constraint, arrestees with long rap sheets and rich histories of failing to appear in court — which is what the Houston court’s decision arguably now requires. Read more »