Authored by Sens. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Joan Huffman (R-Houston), Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 44 sought to amend the Texas Constitution, which currently guarantees bail for most suspects except those charged with capital murder.
Under the proposal, suspects could be denied bail for certain “major offenses” including kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault, assault with a deadly weapon, and repeated human trafficking. However, SJR 44 clarified that judges and magistrates “shall impose the least restrictive conditions, if any, that are necessary to reasonably ensure the accused person’s appearance in court as required and the safety of the community, law enforcement, and the victim of the alleged offense.”
The measure sailed through the Senate on a 30 to 1 vote in March, but then languished in the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence until just last week when it was voted out 7 to 0. Scheduled for a second reading on the House floor Tuesday, at about 10 p.m. SJR 44 sponsor Rep. Reggie Smith (R-Sherman) moved to postpone the bill until September 2023. As Tuesday was the last day for the House to vote on Senate bills on third reading, Smith’s procedural move effectively killed the legislation for this session.
At the same time, Smith also moved to postpone Huffman’s Senate Bill (SB) 1318, which proposed to expand on 2021 bail reform legislation by adding Felons in Possession of a Weapon (FPW) to the list of offenses ineligible for a personal recognizance (PR) bond. Like SJR 44, the measure had garnered bipartisan support in the Senate two months ago but stalled in committee until last week with just days left in the session.
During the 2021 session, state lawmakers approved restrictions on PR bonds for the most violent offenses, but a proposal similar to SJR 44 failed to attain the two-thirds vote needed in the House to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Over the past few years, Harris County judges have frequently drawn criticism for releasing repeat violent offenders on reduced bail or PR bonds who went on to commit additional crimes. Crime Stoppers of Houston’s Andy Kahan has documented nearly 200 cases in which a suspect released on multiple felony or PR bonds allegedly then committed murder or capital murder.
“Obviously we are disappointed to once again come right up to the cusp of passing SJR 44 which would have simply allowed Texas voters the opportunity to decide whether judges should have discretion not to grant bond to defendants charged with certain violent crimes yanked at the last minute without discussion,” Kahan told The Texan. “It defies logic not to give judges more discretion.”
The Harris County District Attorney’s Office warned last year that there had been a significant rise in the number of defendants charged with assault or homicide while on bond for FPW. Kahan has testified that as many as 50 defendants charged with FPW, some for possession of a machine gun, are released in Harris County each month.
Regarding the demise of SB 1318, Kahan suggested that “we have no issues with releasing convicted felons charged with FPW, a gun, and defendants charged with Possession of a Prohibited Weapon, even a machine gun, right back to the community on PR Bonds.”
“Considering gun violence is on everyone’s mind, this makes zero sense,” he added.
Huffman’s SB 23 — named a priority bill by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick — would have enhanced penalties for felony offenses committed with a firearm, and passed the Senate in a bipartisan vote on April 5. After holding a hearing on the measure May 2, House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee Chair Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso) left SB 23 pending, effectively killing the bill for this session.
With rumors that Gov. Greg Abbott will call a special session over school choice and other legislation that has failed to pass, with only days left to move bills, Kahan expressed hope that both SJR 44 and SB 1318 might be added to a special session agenda.
Smith’s office did not return a request for comment prior to publication.
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Holly Hansen is a reporter for The Texan 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.