87th LegislatureCriminal JusticeState SenateHarris County Bail Bond Practices Highlighted in Texas Senate Hearing

A committee hearing on bail reform featured testimony from Harris County's district attorney and victim’s families, with opposition from some criminal justice reformers.
March 18, 2021
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On September 20 of last year, 46-year-old Patrick Aikens was shot to death in his Houston apartment, allegedly by a man who had been released on at least six felony bonds.

The suspect, Deerian Caraway, had been given two felony bonds in Fort Bend County in 2019, and an additional four felony bonds in Harris County in 2020. At the time of Aikens’ murder, Caraway was reportedly wearing an ankle monitor as a condition of bond.

Aikens’ sister Theresa tearfully testified before a state senate committee Thursday in support of legislation filed by state Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) that seeks to address the problem of repeat violent offenders released on bonds. 

“How could a judge allow this to happen? Why wasn’t this person kept in jail the first, second, or third time that he broke his bond conditions?” Theresa asked. 

She explained that although Caraway is now in jail, the same judge will soon consider his request for bond on his prior offenses. 

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“I don’t trust this judge to make the right decision, and I’m very worried he will be out again. I’m convinced that my brother would be alive today if this violent criminal was not allowed to get out of jail.”

Huffman filed Senate Bill (SB) 21  largely in response to growing concern over criminal court judges and magistrates in Harris County issuing multiple bonds to suspects with a violent criminal history.

“We have seen an increase in violent and habitual offenders being released on personal recognizance (PR) bonds…along with low cash bonds, which is a direct threat to the public safety of all our communities.”

Huffman noted that many bail setting decisions were happening behind closed doors and that there is a need for consistency and transparency in the process across the state. 

In presenting the bill, however, she explained that the currently filed text merely served as a draft, and following input from witnesses and the committee, she planned to offer a substitute version.

Committee Vice-Chair Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) expressed concerns over keeping indigent suspects incarcerated if they were unable to afford bail and voiced reluctance to micromanage judges. He noted that gang and cartel members could afford to make bail for violent offenses while indigent suspects could not.

Huffman said she wanted to give judges discretion but at the same time called for individual assessments on whether a suspect should be released. She also noted that the state’s constitution guarantees the right of bond, and changing the law to outright deny bond would require passage of a constitutional amendment.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg, a Democrat, testified and presented detailed information on the suspects out on bond, rising recidivism, and the jail population in the county, noting that there were 7,312 suspects out on two to four bonds, another 555 suspects out on five to seven bonds, and another 74 suspects out on eight or more sequential bonds at the end of 2020.

Ogg presented graphics showing that in 2015 there were 3,200 suspects charged with 6,348 new crimes while out on bond, but by 2020, after bond policies in the county shifted, there were 10,500 suspects charged with 18,796 new crimes while out on bond.

Graphic provided to the committee by the Harris County District Attorney

While the district attorney’s office often argues for higher bonds or no bonds on behalf of the state, Ogg said that at times magistrates were setting bonds and releasing suspects without input from prosecutors.

She also noted that while the county had 22 criminal courts, judges had only held five jury trials over the past year.

In response to a query from Huffman about the county’s near maximum jail population, Ogg clarified that primarily violent suspects were detained, and that law enforcement had stopped making arrests for low-level drug possession back in 2017.

“No one in Harris County is in jail for a joint,” said Ogg. 

Noting that there were increasing numbers of homicides, rapes, assaults, and robberies committed by individuals out on bond, Ogg explained that her concerns were about setting bonds “over and over for sequential violent offenders.”

“There must be a hard stop,” said Ogg. “So, I support the spirit of Senate Bill 21.”

Many witnesses testified in support of seeking a legislative solution to the problem but cautioned that the current version of the bill needs improvement.

Comal County Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp called for judges and magistrates to have access to criminal and bond history of a suspect. Officials from the Texas Department of Public Safety said that a statewide database is available but that judges needed to participate in approximately an eight hour training before accessing the tool.

Hinojosa frequently intoned that perhaps Harris County judges and magistrates merely needed better training to determine whether a suspect could be safely released.

In opposition, LaQuita Garcia, policy coordinator for the Texas Organizing Project, described how she had been incarcerated for a full year before she was finally released because she was innocent of charges, which she did not specify. 

“This bill will turn back the clock on people’s rights, as well as take us back to the days of the racist ‘tough on crime’ approach that did not make our communities feel any safer, and only worsened our nation’s mass incarceration problem.”

Colin Cepuran of the Harris County Justice Administration Department testified that Huffman’s bill would create an unaffordable burden for the county, overwhelm the jail, and “undermine local initiatives that have protected public safety in Harris County.”

Former Harris County Judge Mike Fields, a Republican, also voiced opposition to SB 21 noting that of the 72 suspects who allegedly committed homicide while out on bond in 2020, 93 percent were out on surety bonds requiring some payment. 

“Money doesn’t make us safer,” said Fields.

Surety bonds, which usually require a defendant to post approximately 10 percent of the total bail amount required, can range anywhere from $100 on. In some cases, even murder suspects have been released on a $25,000 bond.

The committee did not act on SB 21 but will take up a substitute version at a future date.

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Holly Hansen

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.