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February 7th, 2019:

Trying again for bail reform at the Lege

A very worthwhile pursuit.

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, announced Monday at the Capitol that they have again filed legislation that would implement a risk-assessment tool for judges to use when making bail decisions, among other proposals. Joining them in support of the legislation were the state’s two top judges, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht — who has publicly called for a change to Texas’ system for years — and Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller.

“I don’t believe I’ve seen anything more broken in the criminal justice system than our current bail bond process,” Whitmire said. “If we do not fix it, ladies and gentlemen, the federal courts will.”

Bail is a legal mechanism to ensure defendants appear in court for their hearings after being charged with a crime. The most common practice is money bail, in which judicial officers set a bond amount that defendants must pay in order to be released. In the last few years, lawsuits have popped up all over the country — including in Texas — arguing that the system wrongfully detains poor defendants until their case is resolved while similar defendants with cash are allowed to go free.

In a speech to the 2017 Legislature, Hecht argued for reforms by noting that 75 percent of people in Texas jails have not been convicted. To illustrate what he considers a flawed system, he cited the case of a grandmother who was kept in jail for about two months on a $150,000 bond after allegedly shoplifting $105 worth of clothes for her grandchildren.

The bipartisan legislation filed Monday aims to help poor, low-level defendants get out of jail on free bonds and keep in jail those thought to be flight risks or threats to public safety. The proposed risk-assessment tool would have to be used within two days of arrest to help judges determine the defendant’s level of risk based on criminal history, not just the current offense. The bills are similar to last session’s, when legislation passed the Senate but died before reaching the House floor.

Whitmire blamed his 2017 bill’s failure on the powerful bail bond industry, which includes companies that front the full cost of a bail bond at a fee of about 10 percent. (A defendant being held on a $1,000 bond, for example, could pay $100 to a bail bond company to be released.) He said last session that bail bond companies opposed the bill because it would cut into their cash flow, but those in the industry have argued the measure would lessen a judge’s discretion and threaten public safety by letting more people out of jail.

[…]

To set bail, most Texas jurisdictions use bail schedules, in which a bond amount is set based solely on the criminal charge. The proposed risk assessment tool would also take into account the defendant’s criminal history and age.

If the tool determines that a defendant shows a lower risk of skipping court hearings or posing a threat to public safety, the judicial officer would release the person on a no-cost “personal bond” with or without conditions, like GPS tracking or drug testing. Under the proposed measure, judges and magistrates could still impose money bail if they decided it was the least restrictive way to ensure court appearance and public safety, but they could not use it as a way to detain poor defendants before their trials.

The risk assessment tool is meant to keep poor defendants from being kept in jail before being convicted simply because they can’t afford a low-cost bond amount. Critics of current bail practices have argued that risk assessment tools considering criminal history can reinforce a system that prejudices against poor people of color. If someone was arrested on a charge earlier tied to race or poverty status, that person would be given a higher risk level. But the critics still support the tool over current practices.

“Until we can get some better tools, then the risk assessment system would need to work for now,” said Tarsha Jackson, criminal justice director of the Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit that advocates for low-income communities and people of color.

The other piece of the proposed legislation would change bail practices — and the Texas Constitution — to allow judicial officers to deny bail if they believe money bail or a personal bond couldn’t reasonably ensure the person would show up for court or if that person might endanger the safety of a victim or the public.

Since release on bail is a constitutional right in Texas except in capital murder cases, changing this part of the law requires voter approval even after the Legislature passes it.

See here and here for the background. Whitmire got his bill through the Senate in 2017, but neither his bill nor Murr’s made it out of committee in the House. This year, we have the settlement of the Harris County litigation and support for the idea of bail reform from Greg Abbott, so perhaps the odds are better. It’s never a bad time to call your legislators and let them know you would like them to support these bills.

Architect hired for Ismaili Center construction on Robinson Warehouse site

This is the most exciting bit of local news I’ve seen in years.

What once was there

The worldwide Ismaili Muslim community announced Wednesday it is moving forward with plans to make Houston the site of its first U.S. cultural center and to create an architectural landmark in the heart of the city that will reflect a spirit of tolerance, diversity and learning.

London-based Farshid Moussavi Architecture has won the commission to design the important new building on a high-profile, 11-acre site at the southeast corner of Allen Parkway and Montrose Boulevard. A rising star who also has taught for more than a decade at her alma mater, Harvard University, she was selected from a star-studded selection list of finalists that included David Chipperfield, Jeanne Gang and Rem Koolhaas.

“The rigorous competition was a vivid illustration of the global stature that an Ismaili Center holds in the architectural and built environment community, and of the attractiveness of Houston as a destination city for world-scale architecture,” said Dr. Barkat Fazal, president of the Ismaili Council for USA.

Houston’s Ismaili Center, the seventh globally, will be the institutional, intellectual and cultural center for the Shia Ismaili Muslim community in the U.S.

[…]

The Aga Khan Foundation purchased the Houston property in 2006 and in 2011 donated the seven monumental artworks — Jaume Plensa’s “Tolerance” sculptures of kneeling figures — that are situated just across the street in Buffalo Bayou Park.

Moussavi said she was honored to partner with the Ismaili Muslim community. “Our team brings a broad perspective, with diverse skills and experience in international practice, scholarly research, multidisciplinary thinking and delivering cultural projects successfully in the U.S.,” she said. “It will bring Houston’s diverse communities together in a unique space for cultural, educational and social activities.”

This site has been vacant for twelve years now, since the old Robinson Warehouse was demolished to make room for this very long-awaited Ismaili Center. I have no idea what too it so long to begin to happen – as the story notes, it will still be a few years before construction is done – but after at least one false start, here we finally are. It’s almost as hard for me to believe this site will finally be redeveloped as it is for me to believe that this amazing piece of real estate has been left fallow for over a decade. Maybe now some other famous empty lots, including one just up the road a bit on Allen Parkway, will finally see new life as well. I wish them all good luck.

SOS Whitley still has to be confirmed by the Senate

His committee hearing is today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Secretary of State David Whitley, who sent a flawed data analysis to every elections official in Texas warning that nearly 100,000 non-U.S. citizens may have illegally registered to vote, is due Thursday to meet with state senators who will decide whether he should keep his job.

Democratic lawmakers say they want answers from Whitley, appointed in December by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose list of possible illegal voters has spurred a flurry of civil rights lawsuits, denunciations from county elections officials — and applause from the Texas GOP as well as President Donald Trump condemning voter fraud.

Whitley will “need to be able to answer that there is not an effort to infringe people’s right to vote,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the nominations committee that will hear testimony on Thursday. “This is, in my view, a very important step in the process and a unique opportunity to start getting on the record answers about why we’re in this situation.”

There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the committee.

[…]

The hearing Thursday will be the first with Whitley speaking publicly about the voter rolls. Whitely declined an invitation to discuss the matter with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, although Whitley’s staff says the secretary has met privately with some legislators.

The issue is at best a “scandal of incompetence and at worse, it is a scandal of maliciousness,” said Anchia, who chairs the caucus. “The fact that a group of duly elected legislators is getting the stiff arm from the state is troubling.”

His confirmation is not assured.

Though Republicans hold 19 seats in the 31-seat upper chamber and can largely consider legislation without the say of any Democrat, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote among the senators present when the full Senate votes on his nomination. That means even with the support of all of the Republicans, he’ll need at least some Democratic support unless several senators are gone the day of the vote.

Whether he’ll clear that hurdle remains a question. Democrats on the Nominations Committee say they’re heading into Thursday’s hearing with a set of what are likely to be blistering questions about whether Whitley acted to suppress the votes of naturalized citizens.

“There is very little about this that doesn’t concern me — everything from intent to what a reasonable person would do under these circumstances to flaws in the system,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who serves as the vice chair of the committee.

Watson described Thursday’s hearing as a “very important step” in the confirmation process. It will allow senators to question Whitley about a review of the voter rolls “that has caused great concern — justifiable concern — about whether it’s an effort to infringe on people’s right to vote,” Watson said.

Whitley knows the appointments process well. Though he most recently served as Abbott’s deputy chief of staff, he previously oversaw appointments for the governor, remaining in that role during the confirmation of his predecessor, Rolando Pablos. Like Abbott’s first secretary of state, Carlos Cascos, Pablos was confirmed on a unanimous vote by the Senate.

But Abbott’s prior appointees haven’t had to explain themselves in the way Whitley might.

You can say that again. In the end, his nomination will surely advance out of committee for a vote by the full Senate, likely on a 4-3 vote. After that, who knows. He will finally get asked some questions about how this debacle came to be. Given all the lawsuits, getting him on the record, no matter how much he tries to dissemble and evade, will be both helpful and clarifying. Plus, you know, that ought to be part of the job description. The Statesman has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 4

The Texas Progressive Alliance would like to announce that it is not forming an exploratory committee to run for President, but it is bringing you this week’s roundup.

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