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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.

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11 Comments

  1. Manny says:

    Bill and Paul would want that grandmother locked up if she could not post bail.

    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.

    Hecht is a Republican, conservative through and through.

  2. Never said I didn’t want reform. I have to go to court. However, no matter how much you jump up and down shouting you can’t get past the P.R. bonds for armed robbers and the death of the girl by a guy who was on another free bond.

    By the way that “risk assessment tool” program Hecht wants to institute state wide, I bet you he has a financial interest in that program. Think about the money that will be made when every government entity in the State of Texas will have to buy one man’s program. You know there will be a hefty monthly subscription.

    It will be just like the surcharge program. Just institute the program and everyone will be driving with insurance and stop violating the law is how they sold it. It was actually a way for the state and its vendors to make more money.

  3. Manny says:

    Let us agree that it is about money for some people. I can definitely say that I am not one of them. I will admit that I have not studied the issue, but found your argument unbecoming for someone as intelligent as you.

    Bad people exist, some like Trump even are placed in office by foreign governments. My two cents.

  4. Terrance Jewett says:

    Paul,
    Harris county already uses a risk assessment tool. When someone is arrested they are interviewed and the assessment is fun to the judge. I maybe wrong, but I don’t believe Harris county pays for the tool. I believe it was created by non profit for this purpose.

  5. Bill Daniels says:

    Manny,

    Angela Jessie was a serial shoplifter. The two months she spent in jail for shoplifting from Old Navy because of the high bond is probably the only real punishment she ever got for her sticky fingered ways.

    You keep pushing the narrative that these p.r. bonds are only for first timers accused of minor crimes. That’s just not true. You blubber for Angela, but for those two months where she was stuck in the pokie, business owners had a brief respite from her shoplifting spree.

    You won’t get an argument from most, even me, about maybe waiving bail for true first time offenders with minor crimes, even, shoplifting. When you have repeat offenders, though, sorry, I’d rather Angela be taken out of circulation as long as possible. The justice system is supposed to protect the public. Keeping a serial shoplifter in jail IS protecting the public.

  6. Paul Kubosh says:

    I agree with Bill… system needs reforming but the pendulum is swinging way to far.

  7. Manny says:

    Bill, you make up stuff all the time, she was serial shoplifter?

    But, in case you can’t get it through that mind, you too Paul, the purpose of bail is to make sure that they appear in court. If they believe that the person will commit violent crimes while out on bail, then bail can be denied or made so high they can’t come up with the money. She had a history of appearing in court.

    But here is the story about that horrible grandmother

    https://www.dallasnews.com/news/social-justice-1/2016/12/29/dallas-county-demands-150000-bail-105-shoplifting-charge-taxpayers-lose

    Bill, let us get one thing straight, I quoted a Texas Supreme Court Justice, do quit telling lies about what I am pushing.

    But the more you two argue against it, the more convinced I am that it is the right thing to do.

    Most people who come into contact with the criminal system already get a PR bond, it is called signing a traffic ticket with the promise to appear.

  8. Bill Daniels says:

    From your own article:

    “Her stay was so long because she was held on a bond of $150,000 — far more than the value of all her worldly possessions. She could not afford the nonrefundable $15,000 it would have cost her to hire a bail bondsman.
    A magistrate set her bail as high as if she had been accused of sexually assaulting a child. The reason: She had previously pleaded guilty to similar shoplifting charges.”

    SHE HAD PREVIOUSLY PLEADED GUILTY TO SIMILAR SHOPLIFTING CHARGES.

    Not one charge, charges.

    That same article discusses the progressive bail amounts based on number of previous convictions. How many shoplifitng convictions do you think this woman needed to rack up to get to $ 150K?

    Hint: Not one or two.

    Would you want this woman anywhere near you if YOU were a store owner?

  9. Bill Daniels says:

    Paul,

    The surcharge program sounded OK to me, until I figured out what it really meant, in practice. In practice, it means poor people who rack up a few tickets and can’t or won’t pay the surcharge eventually lose their license permanently and become de facto second class citizens for the rest of their lives.

    You can sit out a traffic ticket in jail. You can’t sit out the surcharge. If you don’t pay, or can’t pay, you never, ever again can get a driver’s license. And as you correctly point out, those folks are going to drive anyway.

    There needs to be some vehicle (pun intended) for someone to address those surcharges with community service.

  10. Paul Kubosh says:

    Manny,

    I am not trying to convince you of anything. I am just a Kuffner junkie who can’t stop reading his blogs and arguing with you guys. I don’t for one instance think I am ever going to change your mind.

  11. Manny says:

    Arguing is how one learns, bouncing ideas out to others.

    Bill, when I posted this morning, just wanted to get you and Paul involved.

    You’ll have a great rest of the day.