With slain Department of Public Safety Trooper Damon Allen’s widow, Kasey, at his side, Gov. Greg Abbott announced proposals Tuesday to reform the state’s bail system that he said will protect law enforcement and enhance public safety.
Abbott, flanked by DPS officers and lawmakers at the DPS headquarters in Waco, announced his proposed Damon Allen Act, named in honor of the 41-year-old DPS trooper who was shot and killed last Thanksgiving during a traffic stop near Fairfield, about 60 miles east of Waco.
“With the Damon Allen Act, Texas will take meaningful steps to reform our bail system so that we can better protect innocent life, keep violent criminals off our streets and prevent tragedies like the death of Damon Allen,” Abbott said. “It’s time for action, and I urge the Legislature to take up the Damon Allen Act in the upcoming session. I thank Kasey Allen for her tireless work on this effort and the entire Allen family for their inspiring strength in the aftermath of this tragedy.”
Abbott met with Kasey Allen at her husband’s funeral and several times afterward. It was at her urging and because of her “strength of character and sheer willpower” to change the bail system that Abbott will propose the reforms in the next legislative session, he said.
Abbott said the suspect in Allen’s death, 33-year-old Dabrett Black, was out of jail on a $15,500 bond on charges he eluded police and assaulted a Smith County deputy. He also has a previous conviction for assaulting a police officer.
“The justice of the peace who set the bond said he wasn’t aware of his previous conviction,” Abbott said. “That is a flaw in our legal system that must be fixed. Because of a flawed bail system, Kasey was robbed of a husband. Her children were robbed of a father. Texas must ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.”
Abbott proposes to inform judges and magistrates who set bail of a defendant’s criminal history and for them to take that into account when setting bond amounts. He also said the safety of law enforcement should be added to the list of threats judges consider when setting bail.
He also wants to require that only state district judges or associate judges, not justices of the peace, set bail in cases involving defendants with violent pasts.
In McLennan County, bail is set by justices of the peace or a jail magistrate. State district judges at times set bail when issuing arrest warrants and set post-indictment bonds after defendants are formally charged with felonies.
“Gov. Abbott’s proposal to provide judges with more information when setting bonds will result in bonds being set by a better-informed judge or magistrate,” 54th State District Judge Matt Johnson said. “By law, there are limits on how long an accused can be held before a bond is set, and because of those limits, bonds are at times set with limited information. A better-informed judge will be able to set a more appropriate bond under the specific facts of the case.”
Legislators debated bail reform in the last legislative session, and a bill passed the Senate but died in the House. Battles involving bail reform also are pending in courts, with plaintiffs alleging bail on nonviolent offenders is unconstitutional and oppressive to the poor while wealthier defendants can pay for their release.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February that the cash bail system in Harris County violates the due-process and equal-protection rights of poor defendants.
The New Orleans-based court found that a bail system that mostly relies on set amounts is unconstitutional but also said there is no automatic right to pretrial release for misdemeanor defendants. Instead, an individualized assessment is required, the court said. It sent the case back to the original federal court in Houston for further review.
Abbott said Tuesday that his proposals will “dovetail nicely” with the issues in the court cases. The Damon Allen Act also could include reforms to keep non-violent, indigent defendants from prolonged jail stays, he said.
“Our goal for people who are not dangerous to the community is to not house non-dangerous criminals behind bars but put them on a pathway toward productivity and contributing back to society,” Abbott said. “Our goal at the same time is to make sure that if there are criminals who are dangerous who pose a threat to a law enforcement officer or the community, we’re going to get them off the street and keep them off the street.”