If any priority this legislative session highlights the risk of too many cooks in the proverbial kitchen, it’s bail reform, originally to be crafted with two key purposes in mind: First, to address growing societal inequality by ensuring that poor folks don’t 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, to ensure that greater weight is given to whether the accused has a violent history before allowing his or her release on bail.
Last week the Texas House bail-reform bill nearly tanked under top-heavy amendments and proposed amendments that threatened the bill’s very purpose. As it is, it should have been stronger. Republican state Rep. Kyle Kacal’s HB 2020 smartly creates a Bail Advisory Commission to establish a risk-assessment tool for judges to gauge how likely a defendant is to either skip his or her court date or pursue threats against law enforcement and the accused’s own family members. Before finishing its work in 2023, this commission would determine ideal practices.
Law-and-order proponents should appreciate the bill’s adding this risk-assessment tool to facilitate informed bail-making decisions. While Kacal insists it wouldn’t remove a judge’s discretion in determining bail, it would ensure he or she has access to the accused’s criminal background — among the governor’s priorities after the 2017 shooting death of state Trooper Damon Allen 60 miles east of Waco. Allen’s widow Kasey reportedly had input in helping shape this bill.
“The man who shot Trooper Allen (on Thanksgiving Day) was out on bail after ramming a deputy’s car at high speed,” Rep. Kacal said. “He had two prior convictions for assaulting peace officers, but the man was released after posting just a $1,500 cash bond. Decisions on setting bond are incredibly difficult and they carry with them life-altering consequences that affect the safety of all Texans. The goal of a magistrate in setting bail is to set restrictions, financial or otherwise, to ensure that each defendant has an interest in showing up in court and not committing another crime.”
Pressing this issue hard in a 2018 stop in Waco, Gov. Greg Abbott demanded that only state district judges or associate judges — not justices of the peace — set bail in cases involving defendants with violent pasts. The House bill falls short of the governor’s vision, instead mandating justices of the peace (many of whom lack law degrees) get four hours of continuing education so that, to quote amendment author Andrew Murr, “these folks understand the consequences of their decisions.” We don’t see this sufficiently addressing a problem with some (though not all) JPs. HB 2020 would also benefit from more muscular protections for poor individuals held in jail for non-violent crimes before trial. Hopefully, the Bail Advisory Commission — to be manned with appointees made by the Legislature and governor’s office — can highlight problems as this bill becomes law and propose fixes. That’s assuming the Senate doesn’t improve the bill before the session ends this month. Senators such as John Whitmire offer excellent ideas.