Bail reform in Texas has been widely discussed after federal judges branded the system in Dallas and Houston unconstitutionally. The Texas House passed a reform bill to address the problem this month.
The legislation would improve training for people who make bail decisions. Critics say it doesn’t go far enough.
The Texas House approved a bail reform bill intended to keep more impoverished inmates out of incarceration. The legislation will now pass to the Senate. The bill by Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station calls for increased training for judicial officers who set bail. It would also create a temporary Bail Advisory Commission. This entails a free risk assessment tool for counties to evaluate how likely a defendant is to skip court or pose a threat to society, the Texas Tribune reported.
Opponents say it does nothing to address the cash bail system that keeps poorer defendants locked up for minor offenses because they cannot afford to make bail.
The bail system in Texas has been targeted in lawsuits in recent years. Two of the state’s largest counties — Harris and Dallas — were at the forefront of those lawsuits — with federal judges calling their practices unconstitutional.
Those high profile cases, along with recent jail deaths, and the involvement of Governor Greg Abbott on the issue put bail reform at front and center of the legislative agenda in Austin.
The bail commission was originally to be a program within the governor’s office under the new house bill, giving Abbott power over the process. The bill was later amended for the commission to be housed under the judicial branch with members appointed by the governor and other state leaders.
At a recent hearing, Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, claimed the bill as written failed to address federal court rulings that called for individual bail hearings within two days of arrest. The group claimed Dallas and Harris counties’ bail practices kept people locked up because they were too poor to pay their bonds. The organization warned the legislation’s requirement of a risk assessment would prevent judges from automatically releasing most misdemeanor defendants from jail on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice after the critical federal ruling.
Courts set a cash bail based on a variety of factors including the seriousness of the crime and the likely flight risk of a defendant. The system in Texas has been criticized because many poor defendants were unable to make bail for minor offenses and ended up spending long periods in places like Harris County Jail.
The cash bail system remains the norm in most states, but it is being rethought in places like New Jersey which overhauled its bail system. Criminal justice advocates claim cash bail often traps people in a cycle of poverty and crime.
Often people charged with non-violent offenses are unable to afford to use the services of a bail bondsman. Without the ability to make bail, they lose their jobs and are trapped in a downward spiral. Even if they’re later acquitted of the crime they were charged with, they may eventually turn to theft or another type of crime just to make ends meet.
Judges in Harris County unveiled a new system of bail in January. Under the new rule, 85 percent of people who are arrested on misdemeanors in Harris County will automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds. People arrested for bond violations, family violence, and drunk drivers are the only exceptions to the new rule. These defendants must appear before a magistrate or judge within 48 hours. However, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds, the Houston Chronicle reported.
If you or a family member needs help with a bail matter, please contact our experienced Dallas criminal defense team today.