American Sociological Association

Sociology in Action: Stephen Demuth

Stephen Demuth, Bowling Green State University, serves as an expert witness with the Civil Rights Corps in Washington, DC. ASA asked Demuth about his work:

What is the mission of the organization? Civil Rights Corps is a small non-profit organization of lawyers and investigators who travel the country challenging the constitutionality of jurisdictional practices involving wealth-based pretrial detention, privatization of local criminal justice functions for profit, debtors' prisons, militarization of police, and prosecutor abuses of power.

Could you describe your involvement with the organization? I was an expert witness for the plaintiffs in a class-action civil rights lawsuit against Harris County, TX. Most of my work, which amounted to around 150 hours, was analyzing pretrial case process data to understand how long it took misdemeanor arrestees to have a probable cause hearing and to go before a judge to contest their bail. I found that a considerable number of people waited longer than the legally allowable time and remained detained simply because they could not afford bail. I also testified regarding other evidence collected that showed that hearing officers were not considering indigence and that the system was essentially a two-track system "designed" to elicit guilty pleas from poor people. The system of wealth-based detention allows people with money to be released pretrial and achieve better case outcomes than those who cannot afford bail and remain detained. I also testified about my own expertise and the findings of important studies in the literature.

Another two weeks of my time was spent in Harris County being deposed and testifying at a hearing in federal court. The judge found in the plaintiff's favor, that thousands of constitutional violations occurred each year, and ordered an immediate injunction against the county to cease detaining people because of an inability to pay money bail. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals and Supreme Court upheld the injunction. In the second half of 2017, the county released more than 8,000 misdemeanor arrestees who would have otherwise been detained while awaiting adjudication. The county has appealed the merits and we are awaiting their decision. If the county is not successful, they will appeal to the Supreme Court and/or go to trial. The case is ongoing and I am now analyzing data to ensure that the county is actually following the court order. Misdemeanor arrestees who cannot afford money bail must be released on unsecured bonds within 24 hours of arrest. This is one in a series of ongoing landmark cases challenging the constitutionality of money bail as currently used throughout the country. In fact, on January 21, 2018, the Civil Rights Corps along with the ACLU of Texas and Texas Fair Defense Project filed a class-action lawsuit against Dallas County, TX, over their wealth-based detention practices in both misdemeanor and felony cases.

What sociological knowledge and/or skills did you use? I study the role of race/ethnicity and class in the criminal justice system, especially at the pretrial stage. Justice systems that rely on economic status as an indicator of risk or require payment of money to buy freedom are inherently discriminatory given our understanding of current societal structures of economic disadvantage and racism. Wealth-based detention systems harm the poor and actually create future crime. I used my statistical research skills and broad knowledge about the relationship between crime and punishment to communicate about a serious social problem to a lay audience.

How did you connect with Civil Rights Corps? I am on the board of directors of another non-profit criminal justice reform organization, Pretrial Justice Institute (PJI). The CEO of PJI, Cherise Fanno Burdeen, was contacted by the founder and executive director of Civil Rights Corps, Alec Karakatsanis, who was looking for an expert witness to assist them in their civil rights class-action lawsuit against Harris County (Houston), TX over misdemeanor bail practices.

Duration of the project? Eleven months and ongoing.

Is there anything else you would like to share about this work? This was my first time being an expert witness and it was life-changing. Like many professors, I often get discouraged about the impact of my work outside the traditional publication and media pathways. This was an opportunity to make an immediate impact on the lives of people suffering from a discriminatory criminal justice system. Thousands of indigent pretrial arrestees have been released in Harris County since June because of the injunction who would have otherwise been detained due to their poverty. We need to find a way for more scholars to get involved as pro-bono expert witnesses so they can contribute their knowledge and skills to inform public debates and serve the common good.