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Abbott wants in on bail reform

Not sure yet what to make of this.

The ongoing federal lawsuits (and the potential for new ones) and recent jail deaths have further spurred efforts in Texas to address the court rulings and help get poor people accused of nonviolent crimes out of jail. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott has prioritized fixing the bail system this session, but he has focused more on making it harder for dangerous defendants to get out of jail.

But when this legislative session’s first pair of major reform bills were filed last month by a Democratic senator and Republican House representative who have worked on the issue for years, Abbott was silent. Now, he appears to have thrown his weight behind a less-detailed bill with the same name. A key difference: It puts power over changes to Texas’ bail system directly into his office — giving him control over the creation of a risk-assessment tool to be used in bail decisions.

The bill was only recently filed, and advocacy groups for bail reform have acknowledged that it will likely be tweaked as it moves through the Legislature, but the legislation still has drawn concern from groups that say it doesn’t properly address the problems that led to federal litigation and that it is fully “unworkable” in some areas.

“If the Legislature does not want federal courts to design local bail systems in Texas, they need to pass a bill that corrects the essential problem of people who could otherwise safely be released being jailed for no other reason than their not having money for bail,” said Mary Schmid Mergler, director of the criminal justice project for the advocacy group Texas Appleseed, in an email to The Texas Tribune.

She added that the first bills filed are more comprehensive and research driven.

[…]

A primary piece of Whitmire and Murr’s legislation would have the state’s Office of Court Administration create a risk-assessment tool to help judges determine an arrestee’s potential for posing a danger or skipping court hearings if released from jail before trial. It would also establish procedures in statute aimed at releasing poor, low-risk defendants from jail on no-cost bonds while those deemed a high risk would be detained before trial without the option of bailing out with cash. (Currently in Texas, bail release can only be denied in capital murder cases or in certain repeat felony or bail violation circumstances.)

The second Damon Allen Act filed this month by state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, also includes a risk-assessment tool, but it doesn’t specify how and when the tool would be used to affect bail practices. Instead, it creates a program within the governor’s office that would both develop the tool and recommend best practices for pretrial release decisions.

“I think [Abbott] and his office produced the Kacal bill, which means we’ve got a lot of work to do with the governor’s office if we’re going to pursue my bill,” Whitmire told the Tribune last week. “I know [Abbott] wants to control it.”

[…]

A risk-assessment tool is included in Kacal’s legislation, but it is much less specific than Whitmire and Murr’s bills, which explicitly lay out how and by when judicial officers must use the tool in making bail decisions, in part nodding to the necessary changes called for by federal judges in Harris and Dallas counties. Instead, the Kacal (and now Whitmire) legislation places the power for creating the risk-assessment tool, as well as deciding on best practices for pretrial release, directly under the governor.

The bill would create a Bail Advisory Program within the governor’s Criminal Justice Division, a grant-making arm of the executive office. The governor would appoint a director, and the program would develop a pretrial risk-assessment tool for bail decisions (with help from the Office of Court Administration), recommend best practices for bail decisions and collect data on bail practices statewide.

“[Abbott’s] concerned about who would get out on a [no-cost] bond, and I guess he thinks if he came up with a risk-assessment model, he would be able to have more input,” Whitmire said.

See here for some background. I am of course generally suspicious of Abbott’s motives, but so far reform advocates haven’t complained, Whitmire has expressed his willingness to work with him, and as Whitmire notes they do need the governor’s signature. If this increases the odds of the bill passing, and it doesn’t result in the bill being too watered down, then this is fine. Everyone agrees there will be changes made to the final bill, so that’s what we need to watch.

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One Comment

  1. Paul Kubosh says:

    Abbott wants the money. It never ends.