Texas is badly in need of bail reform. Federal judges in Harris and Dallas Counties ruled that the bail systems in those counties was unconstitutional. The system currently locks up those charged with crimes, whether a misdemeanor or a felony, unless they pay a certain amount of money to secure their release.
In September 2018, the federal court ordered Dallas County to hold a hearing within 48 hours of a person’s arrest and, before setting bail, consider whether a defendant can afford it. Also, the most important factors should be: 1) is the defendant a danger to the community; and 2) is the defendant a flight risk.
In 2017, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht expressed his concern that three out of four people who are detained in Texas jails are not dangerous but are too poor to make bail. Hecht stated, “Though presumed innocent, they lose their jobs, families, and are more likely to reoffend.”
On the other hand, those charged with violent felonies (except for capital murder) can be released if they have money and can make bail. Bipartisan attempts by the Texas state legislature to reform the bail system failed in both 2017 and 2019.
Purpose of Bail Reform
The current system makes money almost the sole determining factor of whether a person remains in custody until trial, which sometimes is weeks or months away. Officials estimate that there are thousands and thousands of people currently in Texas jails awaiting trial.
A large percentage of those waiting trial are non-violent offenders. In addition to depriving these people of their freedom because they cannot pay the bond, it costs taxpayers about $70 a day to keep someone in lock-up with an estimated yearly cost of $1 billion.
The purpose of any bail reform is two-fold:
1) To allow nonviolent offenders who are not a danger to the community or a flight risk to be released. Their detention is not to be based on whether they can pay but should be at a level they can pay, or they should be released on their own recognizance. Perhaps be put on house arrest, but not be detained in the local jail.
2) To make it more difficult for those charged with violent offenses to be released.
Need for Magistrate Education
Texas bail reform has bipartisan support and several bills were introduced in both 2017 and 2019, but all failed to pass both the House and Senate. The Damon Allen Act was one that failed to become law in 2019.
The author of the Act, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, spoke to House Members saying, “Decisions on setting bond are incredibly difficult, and they carry with them life-altering consequence that affect the safety of all Texans. The Damon Allen Act seeks to address those difficulties in two main ways. First, it will increase the qualifications of magistrates. Second, it will equip magistrates with tools and data they need to make safe, fair and informed decisions.”