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Prosecutors ask court to end Texas county's cash bail for misdemeanors

AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) - Dozens of current and former state, county and federal prosecutors asked a U.S. appeals court on Wednesday to strike down a bail system in the most populous Texas county that requires cash bonds for misdemeanor defendants, saying it can destroy the lives of the poor.

Many U.S. states and counties have launched bail reforms to ensure people arrested for minor offenses are not held until their trial just because they are too poor to pay bond, especially if they do not pose an imminent risk to the public.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, joined the amicus brief that challenges the bail procedures in the county where she works, which contains Houston and has a population exceeding 4 million people.

“Harris County’s wealth-based bail system has for decades inflicted punishment on poor people before guilt has been proven, while releasing those with money into our communities even when the offenders were dangerous,” Ogg said in a statement.

In April, a U.S. judge in Houston struck down the county’s bail system, saying it was unfair to the poor, and ordered the release of some defendants in misdemeanor cases. Harris County later appealed.

The county has defended its system as constitutional and said it has the right to determine conditions under which bail should be applied.

The amicus brief, joined by the Harris County sheriff, said defendants who stay in jail because they cannot afford bail risk losing their jobs and homes for crimes such as traffic violations.

Once people get to trial, many plead guilty and are sentenced to time served. The brief said this may result in the conviction of innocent people, while the locality must pay the cost of detention. It was signed by nearly 70 current and former elected prosecutors, state attorneys general, U.S. Attorneys, and U.S. Department of Justice officials.

As an alternative to a cash-bond system, some states and counties have used risk assessment programs that can allow for the release of people on their own recognizance or with supervision. These programs keep potentially dangerous people behind bars, but critics say they do not adequately protect public safety.

The U.S. Justice Department under Democratic President Barack Obama filed an amicus brief in a federal circuit court in August 2016 that said mandating inmates to pay bail for release before a trial violates civil rights and discriminates against people who cannot afford the fee.

Reporting by Jon Herskovitz; Editing by David Gregorio