From the Quorum Report:
The unnecessary death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail last summer has now put the reform of bail bonds in focus as a key criminal justice issue ahead of the next legislative session.
Last month, a Waller County grand jury declined to indict those involved in [Sandra] Bland’s arrest and incarceration, either at the jail or in her widely publicized traffic stop near the Prairie View A&M University campus in July.
The Department of Public Safety trooper who arrested Bland subsequently was fired after being indicted for perjury in connection with the traffic stop.
Many put blame for Bland’s death on her inability to quickly find the $500 for her bond, extending her stay in the county jail into the following week, when she took her life. What Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, sees is a woman charged with a traffic stop who should have been in and out of the county jail within 18 hours of being booked.
“She was offered a bond. She needed $500 to get out,” Whitmire told an audience at a Texas Public Policy Foundation conference last week. “When she saw the magistrate, she was not able to come up with the $500. They could verify she had a new job at Prairie View A&M. They could verify she had a local address. It would have served them well to offer her a PR bond and let her go on with her life, and then all of our lives would have been different.”
A “PR” bond is a personal recognizance bond, one that bypasses bail and relies on a defendant’s signature as a promise to return to face charges on a court date. It is usually offered to low-level non-violent offenders who do not pose a flight risk.
In the case of Harris County, 60 percent of those in jail fall into that category, yet magistrates offer a fraction of defendants PR bonds as an option, Whitmire said. Such a decision can often be heartless for people who are living from paycheck to paycheck. The cost of bail ends up outweighing the price of the crime.
“Some people couldn’t raise $1,000 to save their lives,” Whitmire said of bail bonds. “We need to get them in and get them out and save the resources for the really bad people. I think that really should be our priority.”
More than half the people sitting in the Harris County Jail today are awaiting a trial, rather than completing a sentence, Whitmire said. The system would be better served if they were released in order to get back to work to pay court fines.
We are well familiar with the problem. Obstacles to making this happen are the bail bond industry, and judges in places like Harris County that refuse to use Pretrial Services and set rational bonds. If the first obstacle can be overcome in the Legislature, the second one will be reduced in scope, which ought to make a big difference. If Sen. Whitmire says this will be a priority for him, you can be sure there will be some action on it. Grits has more.