“Lives are being lost because the criminal justice system in Harris County is not working the way it should,” said Abbott.
Known as the Damon Allen Act, Senate Bill (SB) 6 is named after a state trooper who was shot and killed during a routine traffic stop on Thanksgiving Day 2017. Despite having a history of assaulting a law enforcement officer, the shooter was out on a $15,000 felony bond at the time of the murder.
Allen’s widow, Casey Allen, who has become an advocate for the reforms implemented by SB 6, joined Abbott at the Safer Houston Emergency Summit held by a coalition of ministry groups.
Noting that her husband had been killed by a “violent, repeat offender,” Mrs. Allen added, “The murderer still went to jail, and my life and my kids’ lives were forever changed by actions that can’t be taken back.”
The new law will create an online public safety report for judges and magistrates to access more complete information about a suspect’s criminal history before setting bail. In addition, SB 6 requires additional training for judges and magistrates, and prohibits the release of certain violent suspects or repeat suspects on personal recognizance (PR) bonds.
Although Allen’s killer had been released by a judge in Smith County, Abbott said much of the impetus for the new law came from a need to address Harris County’s “broken bail system.”
“We…passed laws to directly address a serious crime issue in Houston, Texas more so than any other part of the state of Texas,” said Abbott.
One of several Texas cities experiencing a dramatic rise in homicides and other violent crimes, Houston has been at the center of ongoing controversy over bail policies that have often led to repeat violent suspects being released on minimal bond conditions or on multiple felony bonds. Crime Stoppers Houston reports that there have been more than 130 murders over the past few years allegedly committed by suspects out on multiple bonds.
Noting that homicides in Houston have increased by more than 30 percent this year, Abbott said there were easily identifiable causes that included parenting issues, increased disrespect for law enforcement officers, lax enforcement of the law by prosecutors, and what he called a “revolving door” at the courthouse due to lax bail policies.
“You’re facing a crisis that is a consequence of having elected a lot of judges to the bench in Harris County who ran as Democrat socialists,” said Abbott.
“These Democrat socialist judges, they do believe in letting people out of jail as opposed to keeping people in jail, and that is why you have more criminals, convicted criminals who are back out on the streets endangering public safety.”
Following the signing, the Bail Project, which seeks to eliminate cash bail entirely, released a statement calling SB 6 a “regressive” approach to bail.
“This legislation will further entrench racial and economic disparities in Texas’ criminal legal system without addressing the safety concerns of communities,” the group wrote.
Lt. Governor Dan Patrick echoed Abbott’s comments on judges, but also lambasted Democrats on the Harris County Commissioners Court for taking $20 million away from the constables and sheriff, and warned of a plan in the works to abolish the county’s eight constables.
Noting that of the eight elected constables five are Democrats and three are Republicans, Patrick urged members of the community to demand that county commissioners fully fund and retain constables.
Earlier this year, commissioners received a report from the controversial PFM Consulting Group that advocates dismantling the constables program. Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) has requested discussion and rejection of PFM’s recommendation regarding constables at a public meeting scheduled for Tuesday, September 14.
Patrick also took the opportunity to call out the county for a controversial vaccine outreach contract that has prompted public outcry.
“I find it interesting that Lina Hidalgo found $11 million to give to an apparent friend of hers for an outreach program when she took $20 million away from law enforcement,” said Patrick. “I’m glad they canceled that contract.”
Patrick also pointed out that SB 6 had passed the Texas Senate with bipartisan support, and added, “It’s time for Harris County Court, the three Democrats on that court to join the two Republicans and put public safety, protecting law enforcement, protecting our citizens and keeping felons and dangerous murderers behind bars.”
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.