EDITOR’S NOTE: A grand jury on December 21 declined to indict anyone in connection with Sandra Bland’s death at the Waller County jail; the decision pertains only to the actions of staff at the jail where Bland was found dead. Special prosecutor Darrell Jordan stressed in announcing the decision that the “case is still open” and grand jurors will reconvene in January to consider further aspects of it. It remains to be seen if charges will be brought against State Trooper Brian Encinia, who arrested Bland. The hearing discussed in Debbie Nathan’s report below involves the civil suit that Sandra Bland’s family has brought against several officials involved in her arrest and imprisonment.
Sandra Bland’s mother and sisters were in federal court in Houston on Thursday. The occasion was a hearing for their lawsuit against multiple defendants: the Texas highway trooper who improperly arrested Bland in July, the county that jailed her, and the jailers who Bland’s family say should have prevented her from dying while behind bars. The courtroom was packed with Bland’s family, her Sigma Gamma Rho sorority sisters, black civil-rights activists, unaffiliated but concerned community members, and the media.
Among new developments in the case were revelations from the lawyers of those being sued that they’ve seen evidence, lifted from Bland’s cellphone texts, that she might have been getting counseling for mental-health issues. The defendants say that Bland died while in custody as a result of a suicide that the jail could not have prevented.
The judge set the trial date for January, 2017, over a year from now. It will be a long time before legal light is definitively shed on the question that graces everything from hashtags to T-shirts: What happened to Sandra Bland?
But if you follow the money in Texas, it’s clear that one big reason people like Bland get stopped on the roads is because the state—and its counties and munipalities—are grubbing for dollars and cents.
Bland was detained ostensibly because she failed to signal a lane change in Prairie View, a small, college town in rural Waller County, near Houston. It’s very common for young people to get pulled over there. As in Ferguson, Missouri, stopping drivers and ticketing them is how Waller County makes a lot of money.
Attorney Emily Gerrick has studied the phenomenon. She is with the Austin-based Texas Fair Defense Project. It’s a nonprofit working to improve the state’s public-defender system and challenge policies that jail poor people because they can’t afford bail-bond fees and post-conviction fines and costs.
Those costs are legion and staggering. Texas has no state income tax, and money for social services must come from somewhere. Gouging people with traffic tickets and criminal convictions is an easy way for the state, counties, and municipalities to collect lots of money.
They do it through a byzantine schedule of fees. The state keeps most of the money, but counties and cities retain a percentage. There’s a $25 “records-management” fee, for instance. A $15 “judicial fund” fee. Fifteen dollars added to each bail-bond payment. The list goes on, with scores of charges. As a former Waller County Justice of the Peace described it, a trivial infraction can rack up charges totaling as much as $500.
The most arbitrary pinch comes from what’s known in Texas as the “Consolidated Court Cost.” Added to a fine, it’s a fixed amount imposed upon everyone who pleads guilty or is convicted of any offense, no matter how small. The fee is $40 for a non-jailable misdemeanor like a traffic ticket, $83 for a higher-level misdemeanor, and $133 for a felony.