The Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence is hearing testimony on Thursday over Senate Bill 21, a sweeping piece of legislation that would hamper bail reform efforts in Texas sought after by some local governments and civil rights groups.
The bill, authored by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), sets conditions for when judges can and can’t release defendants on personal bonds.
Under the bill, a person charged with a crime would not be eligible for release if they have been recently convicted of a felony or if they’ve been recently convicted of a Class A or B misdemeanor. That includes charges for resisting arrest, possession of marijuana, and prostitution.
The bill would also prevent personal bonds for anyone charged with committing any offense while out on bail for another offense, or if they are currently charged with multiple offenses.
The legislation is a direct response to ongoing bail reform measures underway in Harris County. In 2019, the county settled a lawsuit that was filed against its wealth-based bail detention system. After the settlement, the county began to reform its bail system to allow for the release of a majority of its misdemeanor defendants. In 2020, an independent report found that those reforms were successful and more misdemeanor defendants were released from jail without raising the risk of reoffending.
Civil Rights Corps, one of the criminal justice reform groups that saw victory in their lawsuit against Harris County’s money bail system and which continues to work on felony bail reform in the county, warned against SB 21.
“SB21 is little more than thinly veiled support of the private bail industry,” Civil Rights Corps senior attorney Jeffery Stein told the Signal. “It’s an industry that profits off of people who are too poor to pay for their freedom.”
Stein said the bond conditions set in place by the bill would only serve to increase the number of presumptively innocent people in jail.
“Imposing a financial condition of release is not ensuring that a person is going to be detained, it’s just ensuring they will be detained if they are poor,” Stein said.
Stein warned that the bill would take authority away from judges to make individual decisions about whether a person should be released or not without requiring to make a payment. The result would inevitably be more wealth-based detention in Texas and more people in overcrowded jails who are awaiting trial.
“This bill really is life support for the private bail industry,” Stein said. “Subsidizing an industry that exploits people who are too poor to pay for their freedom is no way to spend taxpayer money.”
Almost two-thirds of people in Texas jails have yet to be convicted of a crime, according to Texas Commission on Jail Standards data gathered by the ACLU of Texas. Taxpayers shell out more than $905 million each year to sustain that mass incarceration.
In his biannual State of the State address in February, Gov. Greg Abbott announced that bail reform would be one of his emergency items and top priorities this session. The governor’s idea of bail reform was not reducing jail populations, but changing he said, “a broken bail system that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back out onto our streets.”
At the time, Abbott reiterated his support for the Damon Allen Act, a Republican bill named after a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who was shot and killed by a suspect out on bail. The bill would have created a Bail Advisory Commission to provide guidance over how pretrial release decisions are made in the state, but the legislation failed to make it out of the Senate after passing the House.
In March 2020, as counties worked to reduce jail populations due to the pandemic, Abbott issued an executive order preventing Texans previously convicted of violent crimes from being released without paying bail.
Insha Rahman, vice president of advocacy and partnerships for the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit think tank focused on criminal justice, said violent incidents from offenders out on bail are rare.
“If you release more people, there’s actually no adverse impact on public safety,” Rahman told the Signal. “You wouldn’t know that from the headlines, each and every time the one outlier case happens where somebody was released pre-trial and they go out and do something terrible, that becomes the story around bail reform.”
The Vera Institute has also been conducting training and workshops in Harris County for lawyers, judges, and others in the criminal justice system who are accommodating to Local Rule 9, the rule requiring the pre-trial release of most misdemeanor arrestees.
Raham said research from the Vera Institute has shown time and time again that money bail isn’t needed to incentivize people to show up to court. She said bail reform in New York City, New Jersey, Washington D.C., and Harris County has shown that a simple court reminder and some support to get to court is all that’s needed to ensure someone shows up to their court date.
“The thousands of people who benefit from bail reform and are released to go home to their families, to keep their jobs, to continue on with their lives, those stories aren’t told,” Rahman said.