We’ll cede to others any debate over whether Gov. Greg Abbott’s press conference in Waco last week was well-timed electioneering or genuine executive branch business. We agree with his push for statewide bail reform to better protect local and state law enforcement officials. But that’s not enough. Any bail reform undertaken by the Texas Legislature must go further than even Abbott’s outlines and ensure protections for all Texans, including low-income defendants with no history of violent crime.
On Aug. 7, Abbott appeared at the local Texas Department of Public Safety office with state Reps. Charles “Doc” Anderson and Kyle Kacal — also seeking re-election — to announce his proposed Damon Allen Act, named for the 41-year-old DPS trooper shot and killed last Thanksgiving 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.
Abbott’s point — driven home with Trooper Allen’s widow by his side — is undeniable: How on earth did someone of Black’s violent background secure his freedom with so low a bond (or any bond)? To quote the governor, “The justice of the peace who set the bond said he wasn’t aware of his previous conviction. That is a flaw in our legal system that must be fixed. Because of a flawed bail system, Kasey [Trooper Allen’s widow] was robbed of a husband. Her children were robbed of a father. Texas must ensure a tragedy like this never happens again.”
As Trib staffer Tommy Witherspoon reported, Abbott proposes to better inform judges and magistrates who set bail of a defendant’s criminal history and require they take this into account when setting bond amounts. He said the safety of law enforcement officers should be added to the list of threats judges consider when setting bail. And he wants only state district judges or associate judges — not justices of the peace — setting bail in cases involving defendants with violent pasts, which raises a deficiency in many JPs throughout our state. One might note that most of the bikers arrested after the deadly Twin Peaks brawl of May 2015 were hit with $1 million bonds by a local JP. The Associated Press revealed that many bikers jailed had no history of violence, suggesting many were likely bystanders in the Waco melee.
If there’s a tragic irony in all this, it’s that, several months before Trooper Allen’s shooting death, the Texas Senate passed a considerable bail-reform bill (and with support from Republican state Sen. Brian Birdwell, who represents Waco). Crafted by the Texas Judicial Council with input from judges, JPs, prosecutors and defense attorneys, it included a provision that would have expanded the use of validated risk assessments and authorized judges to decide who gets released based on their likelihood to make court appearances or commit more crime. It would have provided for minimal conditions for the release of individuals with no history of violence — and, yes, more prompt court action in the entire business of detention, release and setting of bail. Unfortunately, this most worthy legislation died in the Texas House.