Bipartisan bail-reform legislation introduced in the Texas Legislature offers two worthy provisions all of us should get behind: First, it addresses growing societal inequality and, specifically, poor folks who cool their heels in jail on minor charges while the more economically blessed among us buy their way out of any wait behind bars. Second, this legislation takes into greater account whether the accused has a violent history before allowing his or her release. You might well think: How can such legislation lose?
A couple of ways proved sufficient last session: lateness of the legislation reaching the House after Senate passage and opposition of the bail-bond industry. State Sen. John Whitmire, Houston Democrat, and Rep. Andy Murr, Junction Republican, say they believe the public is better educated two years later. And while Gov. Greg Abbott might have helped by adding this to his list of emergency legislative items last week, he did hold a press conference in Waco last year to tout elements of bail reform in this bill.
“We’ve got people who lost their license because of the Driver’s Responsibility Act, another issue we need to correct,” Whitmire said last Monday. “So they don’t have a driver’s license and they’re pulled over and taken to jail where in Harris County it’s a $10,000 bond, so you need a thousand dollars to go back to work and your family. I saw a poll recently where 80 percent of Americans do not have any savings, any ability to pay that.”
Such reforms were stressed hard by Republican Nathan Hecht, Texas Supreme Court chief justice: “In a poll commissioned by the Texas Judicial Council, 80 percent of Texans surveyed believe judges should assess not only the current charge but risk factors like prior convictions and age to determine bail for defendants. Judges in only six of Texas’ 254 counties have access to this information. Liberty, public safety, the taxpayers’ common sense all demand better.”
For those who assume this is soft-on-crime legislation, Gov. Abbott can stress the teeth in this bill, named in honor of Damon Allen, the 41-year-old state trooper shot and killed Thanksgiving 2017 during a traffic stop near Fairfield, about 60 miles east of Waco. The suspect, 33-year-old Dabrett Black, was out of jail on a $15,500 bond on charges that he eluded police and assaulted a Smith County deputy. What’s more, he had a previous conviction for assaulting a police officer. This legislation would help prevent such an individual from readily making bail by integrating a risk-assessment tool into prompt judicial bail-making decisions.
Critics such as the Texas Alliance for Safe Communities cast doubts on algorithm-based bail policies and suggest an unintended consequence could be release of dangerous detainees before justice is dealt. But as Sen. Whitmire accurately notes, federal judges are finding Texas’ current bail system unconstitutional in its treatment of the poor. This legislation gives Texans a chance to solve the problem. No less than Sharon Keller, presiding justice over the state’s highest criminal court, says our bail system is in sore need of serious reform to keep dangerous people locked up and ensure equality for others awaiting their turn in court. If she says it needs fixing, it probably needs fixing.