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Andrew Murr

Day 13 quorum busting post: Just a reminder, the voter suppression bill still sucks

I’ll get to that in a minute, but first there’s this bit of business.

Rep. Philip Cortez

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, signed a civil warrant for the arrest of state Rep. Philip Cortez, a San Antonio Democrat who rejoined his colleagues in Washington, D.C., on Sunday to help prevent the passage of a GOP-backed election bill.

The warrant is not likely to have impact since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction outside the state. It is the first one signed by the speaker since more than 50 House Democrats left the state to block Republicans from having the quorum needed to pass legislation during the special legislative session that began earlier this month.

Last week, Cortez returned to Austin from Washington in what he said was an attempt to engage in “good faith dialogue” about House Bill 3, the election legislation. Other Democrats criticized Cortez’s move, saying the lawmaker did not first consult with them before returning to Austin.

By Sunday though, Cortez was back in Washington, saying in a statement that talks with lawmakers in Austin on negotiating the legislation “have not produced progress.”

In a statement Monday, Phelan said that Cortez “has irrevocably broken my trust and the trust of this chamber” after the lawmaker “represented to me and his fellow members that he wanted to work on policy and find solutions to bring his colleagues back to Texas.”

“As a condition of being granted permission to temporarily leave the House floor, Rep. Cortez promised his House colleagues that he would return,” the speaker said. “Instead, he fled the state.”

Cortez, who chairs the House Urban Affairs Committee, did not directly address the warrant in a statement Monday that said he owes “a duty to my constituents to do everything I can to stop this harmful legislation.”

I didn’t blog about the Cortez situation at the time. There were conflicting reactions from different House Dems, with some being quite pointed in their criticism of his actions, saying he was not representing them. It seems clear from the Chron story that some but not all of that has been cleared up.

Cortez said in a Monday morning interview that he decided to rejoin his Democratic colleagues in the nation’s capital after three unsuccessful meetings last week with state Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction, the GOP sponsor of the elections measure.

He and Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, one of the few Democrats who decided not to flee the state, had gone into negotiations with “six or seven pressure points” that they’d hoped to address — mostly concerning provisions in the bill that deal with the role of partisan poll watchers. But Cortez said Murr wouldn’t budge until Democrats came back to Texas.

“There was not any positive progress in terms of being able to move forward and improve the bill or improve the language of the bill, and upon seeing that, I decided to return back to D.C. and join my colleagues,” he said.

[…]

State Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie and the head of the Texas Democratic Caucus, issued a statement Sunday night lauding Cortez as a “valued member of our caucus” who colleagues welcomed back to D.C. “with open arms.”

It was a de-escalation of a bitter back-and-forth that at times played out over social media last week as Democrats expressed frustration over Cortez’s departure, which he did not discuss with the delegation beforehand. Abhi Rahman, a Democratic aide, called Cortez a “gutless coward who has earned himself a primary challenge.”

Rahman said in an interview Monday that public pressure likely pushed Cortez to return.

“This isn’t the time for negotiations on voting,” Rahman said.

No one ever said this was for the faint of heart.

I don’t know enough about what Cortez thought he was doing, or whether he had sufficient buy-in to do what he did, but I do know that this bill continues to suck, and while it will never be worthwhile from our perspective, it could be made to be less actively harmful.

Amid all the fighting, most lawmakers have apparently overlooked a provision that would force counties to automatically reject some mail-in ballot applications. Here’s why: The Republican-authored legislation would require voters to submit either their driver’s license number or a partial Social Security number when applying to vote by mail. That number would then be cross-checked with the state’s voter-registration database. Most applicants would be fine, because almost 90 percent of all registered Texas voters have both their Social Security number and driver’s license number in the database. However, 1.9 million voters—about 11 percent of the total—have only one of the two numbers on file with the state.

During late-night testimony to a committee of the Texas House on July 10, Chris Davis, the elections administrator for Williamson County, explained that most of the voters with only one number on file wouldn’t remember which number they filed, often many years earlier, and would have to guess. “You have a 50 percent chance of the voter guessing wrong,” said Davis. Guess wrong and your application would be rejected, even if it’s been twenty years since you used your Social Security or driver’s license number to register to vote. “I challenge any person on the committee: do you remember what you filled out when you got your voter registration? I certainly don’t. And I’m in the business of this. And if [the numbers] don’t match, we’re rejecting.”

[…]

First during the regular session and then again in the ongoing special session, the authors of the “election integrity” legislation increasingly weakened crucial guardrails protecting the security of mail ballots. In addition to the new ID-matching requirements, it now contains a flawed way for voters to “cure,” or fix, a rejected mail-in ballot.

Enrique Marquez, spokesperson for House Speaker Dade Phelan, declined to answer questions about why the House moved the bill forward without addressing the ID-matching and curing issues, nor would he say whether there was any specific plan for addressing these issues if the House Democrats return to Austin. “There are no bills that can be considered on the floor until Democrats return home,” Marquez wrote in an email. “However, House Bill 3 author Andrew Murr has repeatedly stated he will work with all his colleagues to make the best bill possible.” (Murr’s chief of staff said Murr was aware of the problem and “looked forward to working with colleagues about remedying concerns about how differing numbers could result in a ballot not being counted.”)

Davis said many Republicans have failed to listen to the complaints of election officials, ignoring suggestions for improvements to nonpartisan, process-related issues. “It’s just like ‘Who is steering this bus?’” Davis told me. “They are following the pattern of only listening to their ‘the steal is real’ base and not consulting with any county elections officers.”

Davis said that while he decided to testify before the House, he chose not to give testimony before the Senate because Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican who chairs the State Affairs Committee, had brushed him off so many times before. Davis said he reached out to Hughes’s office about the ID-matching problem multiple times, but never received confirmation that a fix was in the works. Two legislative staffers, one working for a Republican and one for a Democrat, confirmed that the Texas secretary of state’s office had also advised legislators that the ID-matching provision needed to contain a failsafe for voters who do not have both numbers in the registration system, but the changes were never made. The staffers requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak about negotiations. “Why are [election administrators] going to waste our time testifying?” asked Davis, who was appointed to his nonpartisan job by the Williamson County Commissioners’ Court. “They don’t care what we have to say. They haven’t from the beginning.”

County election administrators say the ID-matching provision imposes significant burdens on their offices, and they are unclear how to enforce it. Under the new language, the ID number—either a partial Social Security number or a driver’s license number—would have to be written on the envelope, forcing counties to spend thousands of dollars redesigning envelopes in order to accommodate a privacy flap that poll workers would peek under to check the number. “We’ve joked about whether it should be a scratch-off,” Davis said. If poll workers make an error or if voters, for example, transpose two numbers by accident, the application would be rejected with little opportunity for the voter to address the problem. “We don’t have time for that,” Davis said. “We’re getting down to registration deadlines by the time we receive a lot of these. There’s no time for the voter to mail another one.”

You should read the rest to learn more about the “curing” issue, in which untrained partisans get to review mail ballots and determine whether the signature on the (unopened) envelope matches the signature that’s on file from when you registered to vote. As the bill stands now, there’s no way to appeal if your ballot is rejected, and no opportunity to fix it, even though this kind of “curing” is standard and easily done in many states. This would also be redundant if the driver’s license or Social Security number matches, since the point of that is to verify identity. There are simple fixes, and the Republicans in the Lege have been aware of them for months, yet here we still are. There might be room to get the Dems back if dumb stuff like this were taken out or fixed, but the Republicans say they can’t or won’t do any of that until the Dems return on their own. That ain’t gonna happen, at least not in this session.

One thing that will happen:

Texas House Democrats who left the state to block GOP-backed efforts to enact new voting restrictions will testify on those proposals before a U.S. House subcommittee this week.

State Reps. Senfronia Thompson of Houston, Nicole Collier of Fort Worth and Diego Bernal of San Antonio are expected to make appearances on Thursday before the civil rights and civil liberties subcommittee of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform in a specially called hearing on contentious Texas legislation that would rewrite state election laws. The hearing will come in the middle of Texas Democrats’ third week in Washington, D.C., offering them a more formal stage on which to make their case against the legislation that prompted them to decamp to the U.S. capital.

“America is facing the most sweeping assault on the voting rights of the people since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965,” U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland, who chairs the subcommittee, said in a statement. “Texas is now Ground Zero in this battle, and we are honored to have these Texas lawmakers come to testify before our subcommittee about the struggle to defend basic democracy in their state.”

Again, the House isn’t really the problem, the Senate is, and it’s the ridiculous fidelity to the filibuster that’s at the heart of it. I refuse to give up hope, but time is not on our side. But at least our people in DC will get to be heard.

Here are your new SB7s

We start with the House.

The Texas House is starting off on a new foot on the contentious elections proposal that blew up the regular legislative session.

As a special session reviving the Republican-priority bill got underway Thursday, there were ample signs that the lower chamber was taking a fresh approach to the legislation, at least procedurally. The bill has a new author who is moving early to get colleagues’ input, and it is going through a new committee that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, says he created to bring more diverse perspectives to the issue.

[…]

The House’s revised approach to the voting legislation is in contrast to the Senate. In that chamber, Sen. Bryan Hughes, a Mineola Republican, is again carrying the omnibus election proposal, which for a second time will be considered before the upper chamber’s State Affairs Committee, which Hughes chairs. The committee is set to consider the legislation Saturday.

One of the starkest changes to the elections bill in the House for the special session was its author. Rep. Briscoe Cain, the Deer Park Republican who chairs the House Elections Committee, carried the bill in the regular session, but Phelan tapped Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, to take the lead on it during the special session. Murr currently chairs the House Corrections Committee.

On Wednesday, Murr sent a letter to House colleagues announcing he had filed House Bill 3 and was soliciting their feedback.

“Because this subject is important to all Members and their constituents, and given the compressed time frame of the special session, I welcome any questions, discussions or comments you may have,” Murr wrote, inviting members to call him or come by his office.

[…]

Phelan did not put Cain on the new panel, nor did he tap Rep. Jessica González, a Dallas Democrat who serves as vice chair of the Elections Committee. But he did tap Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, a member of the Elections Committee who had helped Cain with the elections bill during the regular session.

On Thursday, the main elections bill for the special session — HB 3 — as well as other voting-related proposals were referred to the select committee instead of the Elections Committee. The election bill was set for a hearing set to start 8 a.m. Saturday.

During Democrats’ news conference Thursday, Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus, said that the legislation, despite any changes that may be made to it, “is inherently flawed.”

“The bottom line on HB 3 is, just like SB 7, it’s based on a lie,” Turner told reporters. “It’s based on a lie that there’s rampant problems in our elections and the big lie that Donald Trump actually won the last election.”

As noted, the Senate will also have a hearing on Saturday. Tomorrow will be a busy day.

This story covers the differences between the House and Senate bills, and how the differ from what had been done in the regular session. It’s nice that some of the more egregious things like the restriction on Sunday early voting hours and the lessening of legal standards to challenge an election were removed, but there are still some truly bad things in these bills, and they’re not getting enough attention. For example:

SB 1 strays from the House’s legislation by setting up monthly reviews of the state’s voter rolls to identify noncitizens — harkening back to the state’s botched 2019 voter rolls review. The bill would require the Texas secretary of state’s office to compare the massive statewide voter registration list with data from the Department of Public Safety to pinpoint individuals who told the department they were not citizens when they obtained or renewed their driver’s license or ID card.

That sort of review landed the state in federal court over concerns it targeted naturalized citizens who were classified as “possible non-U.S citizens” and set up to review notices from their local voter registrar demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

State election officials ultimately ended that effort as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges and agreed to rework their methodology to only flag voters who provided DPS with documentation showing they were not citizens after they were registered to vote. But they do not appear to have ever taken up the effort after that debacle.

While the Senate bill does not reference that agreement, it indicates that the secretary of state’s office would be responsible for setting up rules to implement the review.

I guarantee you, the implementation of this will be a disaster. This provision is heavy-handed, the mandated frequency will make it error prone, and the end result will be many people thrown off the rolls incorrectly. I don’t care how the Secretary of State sets up the rules, there is no reason to trust this process.

Both bills include language to strengthen the autonomy of partisan poll watchers at polling places by granting them “free movement” within a polling place, except for being present at a voting station when a voter is filling out their ballot. Both chambers also want to make it a criminal offense to obstruct their view or distance the watcher “in a manner that would make observation not reasonably effective.”

Currently, poll watchers are entitled to sit or stand “conveniently near” election workers, and it is a criminal offense to prevent them from observing.

What this will lead to is some Republican knucklehead uploading a video of something he will claim is “proof” of “voter fraud”, when it will be nothing of the sort. But because he will have been there, at the scene, acting in an “official” capacity, people will believe him. Nothing good can come of this. We need more protection from partisan poll watchers, not protections for them.

Anyway. Watch the hearing if you can, register to leave written feedback if you can, and then work like hell to boot the people pushing this crap out of office in 2022. It’s all we can do.

Trying to make the sausage less bad

RG Ratcliffe walsk us through some bipartisan negotiations on HB6, the House version of the big Senate voter suppression bill, as three Democrats who want to make this bad bill slightly less bad work with a couple of Republicans who want to avoid an all-nighter and make defending this sucker in court a little easier.

[Rep. Joe] Moody says he went into the meeting feeling haunted by a similarly contentious fight over a bill in 2017. That year, Republicans had drafted SB 4, which was set to outlaw sanctuary cities, which decline to cooperate with federal immigration authorities who seek to deport undocumented immigrants who are held in county jails. Democrats had prepared more than 150 amendments and planned to spend the night of debate shaming Republicans on the floor, even if they knew they didn’t have the votes to pass the amendments. In retribution, Republicans filed an amendment of their own, to add a provision giving police the power to demand proof of legal residency from suspected undocumented immigrants. It was a provision many believed would lead to racial profiling. The “show me your papers” amendment promptly passed, as did the bill at large. Democrats couldn’t even claim a moral victory. “I was in all those rooms on SB 4, and I remember the feeling when it fell apart,” Moody recalled for me. “You got to learn the lessons from mistakes like that.”

Moody saw the same potential debacle approaching in the voting-restriction bill this year. Even though the House version was less onerous than its counterpart in the Senate, the bill still would have enhanced jail penalties for voting crimes that are most often committed through ignorance of the rules. And it would have made it a state jail felony for any local election official to distribute a vote-by-mail application to a voter who did not request it, as Chris Hollins, then the Harris County clerk, tried to do last year. It wasn’t legislation Democrats could support.

[…]

The Republicans wanted to avoid a divisive floor fight, and a demonstration of cooperation could work to their advantage in court. (There are already at least six challenges to the election bill Georgia passed in March, and the Harris County commissioners voted last week to file a lawsuit over any restrictive legislation the Lege passes.) The GOP representatives were joined by an attorney, Elizabeth Alvarez Bingham, the former vice chair of the Dallas County Republican Party. Bingham sits on the board of the American Civil Rights Project (formerly known as the Equal Voting Rights Institute), which unsuccessfully sued Dallas county commissioners in 2015, alleging that they discriminated against white voters by gerrymandering municipal districts to favor minorities. But Bingham, an election law litigator, was instrumental in urging the Republican negotiators to accept most of the proposed changes to the bill, Democratic negotiators told me.

The negotiations had made progress by a quarter past eight, but the leaders needed time to continue without the bill actually being debated further on the floor. Under guidance from his caucus, freshman Dallas Democrat John Turner called a point of order, arguing that the bill violated an obscure House rule. Members in the meeting knew the legislative maneuver was unlikely to kill the bill, but it would provide the needed delay for negotiations to keep going.

Over the course of the negotiation, which lasted well past midnight, Democrats earned concessions on about three quarters of their requests to water down the bill. They ensured that the mere act of violating a voting rule would not be regarded as a crime unless the person who committed the infraction knew he or she was breaking the law. (This could retroactively cover the case of Crystal Mason, a Fort Worth woman sentenced to five years in prison for casting a ballot while on supervised release on a tax fraud charge, even though she didn’t know she was not eligible to vote.) Democrats also negotiated the inclusion of a clause allowing election judges to remove poll watchers who violate state law by intimidating voters. And they added language barring poll watchers from obstructing a voter, while also making it a criminal offense for someone to give a voter false information with the intent of preventing them from casting a ballot.

I appreciate the behind-the-scenes view, and I appreciate the efforts of Reps. Moody, Canales, and Bucy to try to do harm reduction. There’s only so much you can do when you’re outnumbered, and the experience from 2017 certainly colored their perspective. This may all wind up being for naught, as the bill has now gone to a conference committee, but at least they can say they did the best they could have done under the circumstances.

In the meantime, the House passed SB155 yesterday, which is not specifically an elections bill but will almost certainly have an effect on the elections process. The caption reads simply, “relating to the use of information from the lists of noncitizens and nonresidents excused or disqualified from jury service.” The point of the bill is to have registered voters removed from the rolls if they are excused or disqualified from jury duty for lack of residence in the county. That may sound sensible, but there are a couple of glaring issues. One is that you have a 30 day deadline to update your address on your driver’s license, but have until the next registration deadline (which may be more than a year away) to update your voter registration. If you get called to jury duty in the interim, and you tell them you can’t serve because you’ve moved out of county, you could wind up getting prosecuted for having an invalid voter registration, because all of this information will be sent to the Attorney General’s office on a quarterly basis. What could possibly go wrong from there? Dems made multiple attempts to amend this bill to make it more of an administrative fix – which is what it should be – and less of a potential criminal liability, but they were all shot down, on partisan votes. See here for the discussion and record votes on the amendments. This is the kind of thing that gets a lot less attention than the big headline bills, but could have a real negative effect on people down the line. And it’s on its way to the Governor’s desk.

Republican bail reform bill passes House

Meh.

Rep. Andrew Murr

The Texas House on Tuesday passed a bill to alter the way criminal defendants can be released from jail before trial. The priority legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.

House members approved House Bill 20 after significant changes — largely by the bill’s author — were made on the floor Monday.

“The goal today is to strike a balance in which we provide … credible information to our trained magistrates so that they can determine that those that are low risk have a chance to get out while those who are higher risk, with a violent offense or a violent criminal history, they don’t easily pay and immediately walk on the street the next day and do something else that harms us,” state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the bill, said Monday.

Named the Damon Allen Act after a slain state trooper, HB 20 was deemed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott at the beginning of the legislative session after similar legislation failed in 2019. The suspect in Allen’s shooting death during a 2017 traffic stop was out of jail on cash bail at the time.

After tentatively approving the bill Monday, the House finally passed HB 20 on a 98-to-46 vote Tuesday. It is now headed to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill which varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 since has stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release from jail a defendant who is legally presumed innocent while ensuring the person comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is currently based on a dollar amount.

The cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocates who argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

See here for the background. As this Chron editorial notes, HB20 is better than SB21 but still falls short because of its prioritization of cash bail. A fair and just system does not determine who gets to go home and who gets to stay locked up for weeks or months before even going on trial based on ability to pay. As Grits noted a month ago, any bail-related bill that has Greg Abbott’s support is highly unlikely to be upheld by the federal courts going forward. As such, the best move is to vote against HB20 and SB21, and wait for further direction from the Fifth Circuit.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that addresses bail practices, which courts recently deemed unconstitutional in the state’s two most populous counties for discriminating against poor criminal defendants who can’t pay for their release from jail.

But a last-minute amendment actually limits who can be released from behind bars without having cash.

Reform advocates have called for a system that could get poor, nonviolent defendants out of jail before their trial, but the amendment by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, is more restrictive than current law on no-cost releases. It would not allow judicial officers to release defendants on no-cost bonds for numerous reasons, including if they haven’t shown up to a court hearing in the previous two years, were charged with a violent offense or were charged with a crime that involves more than 4 grams of a controlled substance.

House Bill 2020 was one of several bail reform measures filed this year after federal court rulings, jail deaths and a state trooper’s murder drew attention to Texas’ pretrial jailing practices after the last legislative session. As it was presented to the chamber, the bill would have required officials to consider a defendant’s risk of danger or skipping court before making bail decisions. The successful amendment nixed that requirement if a defendant is released on a preset bail amount.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he worked in coordination with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on the measure, but it has changed significantly since it was filed in March. One of the most notable revisions before coming to the floor was that it no longer puts the power over systemic bail changes under the governor’s office.

[…]

Longoria’s amendment drastically alters the bill, but he emphasized that the move to restrict release for defendants on personal bonds — which have no upfront cost — for some defendants was based on safety, noting that it limited no-cost release for sexual assault and family violence offenses.

“It was more of a community safety issue,” he told The Texas Tribune after the bill passed. “A lot of judges don’t have the proper training to basically admonish the defendants and set proper bond.”

The amendment went against what many advocates have pushed for, and Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he would push to have the Senate remove it if the bill finally passes the House.

“It certainly would contribute to inequality in the system, and it could contribute to dangerous people who have money being released when they shouldn’t,” he said.

Some bail reform advocates have also criticized the bill for still relying on money bail instead of presuming release on no-cost bonds for nonviolent defendants. At a hearing last month, the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project claimed the bill at that time didn’t adequately address federal court rulings that said Harris and Dallas counties’ bail practices kept people in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bonds, and the group called for individual bail hearings within two days. The organization also said the bill’s requirement of a risk assessment would prohibit judges from automatically releasing from jail most misdemeanor defendants on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice amid legal woes the county faced from the federal ruling.

“We would like to see … that they’re still allowed to make a decision to automatically release defendants on really low-level, nonviolent offense,” Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the organization, said at the hearing.

Amendments to allow counties to release defendants on no-cost bonds before a risk assessment and to address the court rulings that called for individualized bail hearings failed Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Earlier bills by Rep. Andrew Murr and Sen. John Whitmire appear to be dead at this point, so it’s this bill or nothing. Grits believes none of these bills were going to address the main constitutional flaws in the existing system, which should be clarified in the coming months by the Fifth Circuit. After reading through this story, I’m inclined to agree. If this bill falls short of what the court is likely to order, what’s the point? Whatever the case, it’s up to the Senate now.

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.

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.

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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.

Bail bondsmen complain about bail reform bill

I understand their concerns, but that doesn’t mean I agree with them.

Sen. John Whitmire

Legislation touted as a fix-all to reform Texas’ controversial jail-release system was blasted Tuesday by bail bondsmen and attorneys who said it would destroy the bail-bond industry and leave taxpayers footing a multimillion-dollar tab.

“The whole industry will be out of business” if the proposed measure passes, warned Harris County bail bondsman Rodney Vannerson, in testimony that echoed the sentiments of others. “The cost of replacing this system will be astronomical.”

During a standing-room-only hearing at the Texas Capitol, Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, sparred with several witnesses over whether his Senate Bill 1338 would improve Texas justice by allowing thousands of poor Texans to get out of jail before trial on minor charges – as the state’s top two jurists testified it will.

Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, in a rare joint appearance, both endorsed the legislation. They said it is a much-needed overhaul of an antiquated system that keeps too many Texans in jail and gives violent offenders who have money the ability to get out of jail when they should not.

Targeted for the most criticism during the hearing was Harris County, which Whitmire and other witnesses said keeps thousands of indigent defendants in a chronically overcrowded jail because they cannot afford to make bail.

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“This legislation is a radical sea-change in how bail is handled in Texas,” said Michael Whitlock, with American Surety Co., warning that similar changes in other states have proven controversial and costly.

Jeri Yenne, the criminal district attorney in Brazoria County, complained that the changes would add court time to current bail procedures.

Potter County District Attorney Randall Sims cautioned that justices of the peace who supervise bail hearings in many counties may be legally overwhelmed by the changes as many are not attorneys.

Randy Adler, an attorney who represents bail-bond companies, said $7 million in fees now paid to counties on bonds and millions more in forfeiture fees could no longer be collected.

See here for the background. I am sure that if these bills pass, it will have a negative effect on the business of bail bonding, and I am sure some bail bondsmen will go under as a result. That’s unfortunate for them, but it doesn’t mean that these reforms aren’t right or necessary. The number of people who are held in jail because they can’t afford bond even though they represent little to no risk to anyone and even though their being in jail imposes a significant cost to themselves, their families, and all of us taxpayers, is simply unconscionable. I challenge the assertion that changing how bail is determines will be detrimental to society. And not to put too fine a point on it, even if the opponents of these bills get their way in the Legislature, the federal courts may force the issue anyway. Perhaps the better approach is to figure out how to adjust to a world that’s going to change one way or another, whether bail bondsmen like it or not.

Bail reform bills

Glad to see this.

Sen. John Whitmire

An unusual bipartisan coalition of lawmakers and judges has teamed up to back broad reforms in Texas that could eliminate cash bail for nonviolent offenders who are not deemed dangerous or a flight risk.

Bills introduced simultaneously in the House and the Senate this week by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, would require all judges statewide to use a proven risk assessment tool and quickly determine within 48 hours whether a defendant accused of a nonviolent crime might be eligible for a so-called personal bond — a measure that carries a financial penalty only if the person fails to how up for court. Now, defendants who can’t afford to pay bail are left in jail, even for minor crimes.

The proposals have been hammered out by jurists and legislators following reports that show more than 1,100 people died in Texas jails in the last decade – most of them pretrial detainees such as Sandra Bland, who committed suicide in the Waller County jail after being locked up after a traffic stop.

Nonviolent defendants detained after the first hearing would be re-evaluated within 10 days. And judges would be required to seek alternatives for those deemed mentally ill or disabled.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, who is backing the measures, said he and other members of the National Conference of Chief Justices of the United States generally have concluded that America’s bail bond system “simply doesn’t make any sense.”

He said he’d like to see Texas follow the model of New Jersey, Washington D.C., Kentucky, Arizona and other states in pursuing reforms that restrict or eliminate monetary bail for defendants who pose no real risks.

Hecht said bail reforms elsewhere already have saved taxpayers’ money by eliminating unnecessary jail expenses and spared hardships for low-risk defendants who often lose jobs, homes or their health while being locked-up awaiting trial.

“There are constitutional problems, there are practical problems, there’s a burden on taxpayers — change is just the right thing to do,” he said. “We’re just talking about low-level crimes —we’re not talking about crimes of violence. So across the country, there’s been an effort to change bail procedures to get away from high bond and jail time in all of these low-level crimes.”

Hecht chairs the Texas Judicial Council, 22-member group that includes Murr. Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals is vice chair. He said the council studied bail reforms and recommended changes last fall.

See here for some background. Via Grits, the bills in question are HB3011 and SB1338. Grits also notes that the bail bondsmen are fighting these bills, which is not surprising. A later version of this Chron story goes into that.

“We have a very conservative governor, lieutenant governor, Senate and House,” said Michael Kubosh, a Houston City Council member and long-time commercial bondsman. “To get all that through, there’s going to be a real battle, and our lobbyists are talking to them. They’re not going to want to let crime run rampant and give everybody free bonds.”

Kubosh and other industry supporters say bondsmen help make sure low-level defendants appear in court – and track them down when they fail to appear. They say they also get families involved, since relatives often must post cash or property to back bail bonds even when commercial bondsman are involved. He and other advocates are simultaneously monitoring a federal court challenge to a fairly rigid bail schedule used for years by Harris County judges even for low-level misdemeanor offenses.

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The legislation also says that defendants are entitled to have lawyers present at pretrial detention hearings – not a common practice today.

On any given day, the Harris County Jail is crowded with 1,500 or more misdemeanor offenders awaiting trial. The county has spent more than $1.2 million in legal fees so far defending county court-at-law judges and hearing officers in the federal civil rights case before Judge Rosenthal.

Kubosh, the commercial bondsman, said he agrees that truly indigent defendants often don’t get personal bonds in Harris County. But he argues that bondsmen routinely save the county money by helping ensure that those who are released on commercial bond follow court conditions and by tracking down those who fail to appear. With fewer commercial bonds, he argues, “you’re going to see a spike in people thumbing their noses at the courts … you’ll see huge increases in warrants.”

No question, this would affect the bail bond business, and I can’t blame them for opposing these bills. I don’t agree with CM Kubosh’s assessment of what may happen if these bills pass, but there ought to be an objective way to evaluate it. Personal recognizance bonds are used with far greater frequency in other states. Is there any evidence to suggest that crime “runs rampant” where PR bonds are more the norm? Show me some numbers, or this is just going to sound like scaremongering.