Much attention has been given to Democrats blocking the passage of SB 7, a Republican “election integrity” bill, by staging a dramatic walkout late Sunday night to break quorum. SB 7 has received quite a bit of attention nationwide as part of a wave of GOP efforts to suppress the vote in the wake of their defeat in 2020. Yet the Democratic walkout also prevented the passage of HB 20, a less known but still controversial bail reform bill.
Bail reform is usually centered around preventing people from being incarcerated without conviction simply because they are poor. However, HB 20 took the opposite approach. The bill would have prevented those accused of sexual or violent crimes from being released on personal bonds, where cash is not provided upfront. It also banned charitable organizations from posting bail for anyone accused or previously convicted of a violent crime. It became more common for such groups to bail out protestors during the George Floyd protests.
Bail reform advocates pushed back against HB 20, calling it yet another policy that criminalizes the poor. State Rep. Jasmine Crockett (D-Dallas) raised constitutional concerns as people accused of violent crimes would only be denied release if they didn’t have enough cash, while violent criminals who could pay could still be released. There were also criticisms from mental health advocates, as people in a mental health crisis often resist police officers and are charged with assault. By banning cashless bail for those facing these low-level assault charges, more mentally ill people would be kept behind bars.
Many advocates have argued for abolishing the cash bail system entirely, which they say punishes those in poverty and exacerbates racial inequities. Illinois recently became the first state to do so.
Democrats did make some amendments to HB 20 in order to provide protections for the poor when the bill passed the House. However, these protections were removed by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) in the version of the bill that passed the Senate.
Since the House and Senate passed very different versions of the bill, a group of mostly Republican lawmakers had to hash out a final version in behind-closed-doors negotiations over the weekend. The Senate approved the final version on Sunday evening and the House had until midnight to vote on it. The Democratic walkout prevented this from happening.
With the combined defeats of both HB 20 and the Republican voter suppression, Governor Greg Abbott, who had stated that both were high-priority items in his legislative agenda, sustained a major blow. However, Abbott has also stated that both voter suppression and bail reform will be on the agenda for an upcoming special session. Democrats have won for now, but this is far from over.