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.