87th LegislatureCriminal JusticeLocal NewsState SenateHarris County Elected Officials, Community Leaders Spar Over Felony Bond Legislation

A Harris County report sparked controversy for excluding data from the district attorney’s office, and commissioners clash over felony bail legislation.
April 2, 2021
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Standing next to a display of 105 U.S. flags to represent each person allegedly killed by a suspect released on multiple bonds in Harris County over the past two years, at a Wednesday press conference Andy Kahan lambasted a new report from the county’s Justice Administration Department (JAD) for ignoring other published data and the impact of bail reform on victims.

Kahan, victim’s advocate for Crime Stoppers Houston, cited statistics from the district attorney’s office recently submitted to the Texas Senate showing that new charges by defendants released on misdemeanor bond have doubled since 2018 while new charges by defendants on felony bond have more than doubled.

“None of the data that was presented in a report by the Harris County district attorney’s office was submitted by a report to elected officials by the Harris County Justice Administration Department,” said Kahan.

Earlier in the week, JAD’s Colin Cepuran presented a report to Harris County commissioners asserting that bail reform was not a contributing factor to rising crime. Cepuran noted that a 2019 consent decree approved by a federal court judge in ODonnell v. Harris County only applied to misdemeanor bail, while felony bail practice changes were due to COVID-19 “disaster order” bonds and individual-level decisions made by judges.

The JAD report stated that only 14 individuals had been released last year under disaster orders, but Kahan said his analysis showed that of the 14 only two defendants complied with release conditions, while the others were either back in custody, out on bond for new charges, or wanted fugitives.

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Kahan also criticized the JAD report for referring to personal recognizance (PR) bonds, in which defendants are released without having to post any money, as “unsecured” bonds instead, and he noted that the number of defendants released on eight or more bonds had risen from two cases in 2018 to 74 in 2020.

“We are more concerned with the victims than distinguishing whether or not defendants were released multiple times on secured or PR bonds,” said Kahan. “The issue is how many bonds are enough?”

At a recent committee hearing on potential legislative remedies proposed by Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), District Attorney Kim Ogg (D) told senators that the number of violent offenders granted PR bonds in Harris County has quadrupled since 2018.

In reference to Huffman’s legislation, known as Senate Bill (SB) 21, Harris County Commissioner Tom Ramsey (R-Pct. 3) also this week presented a resolution supporting efforts to curtail lenient felony bond policies statewide.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, however, repudiated Ramsey’s resolution calling the district attorney’s data “cherry picking” and “red meat pandering.” 

Hidalgo referred to the reports from JAD and a court-appointed monitor arguing that bond reforms had not caused an increase in crime, and while she acknowledged that felony bond practices had changed and more defendants had been released on “unsecured” bonds over the past few years, she pointed to data indicating the average amount of secured bonds issued had increased. 

Admitting that some violent crime was increasing, Hidalgo argued that it was a national trend and that there had been “no felony bail reform to speak of.” Instead, she said legislation should address the root causes of crime.

“If you really care about the increase in crime in the community, you’re going to tackle the problem that actually exists and not invent a problem that doesn’t exist for the sake of pandering,” said Hidalgo.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia (D-Pct. 2) argued that Huffman’s bill would add as much as $125 million to the county’s budget and could lead to cutting funds to law enforcement.

“This would effectively lead to defunding of the police,” said Garcia.

Garcia countered with what he attempted to term a “friendly amendment,” but Ramsey rejected the amendment since it opposed the purposes of SB 21 and the county attorney’s representative confirmed that Garcia’s “amendment” was actually a substitute resolution.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct. 1) joined Hidalgo and Garcia in supporting the substitute condemning SB 21, while Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct. 4) sided with Ramsey.

Ellis and Hidalgo both connected SB 21 to the county’s misdemeanor bail reform, but Ramsey pointed out that the bill aimed to address felony defendants repeatedly released on PR bonds and how that impacted public safety.

“What I think about when I read this, is that single mom with two babies that’s going to go to bed tonight in a very unsafe situation,” said Ramsey. 

“We need to keep in mind the individuals who are disproportionately impacted by crime,” added Cagle. “The poor individual is more impacted by crime than the wealthy individual, and if we say that we care about our poorer communities, we need to make sure that they are safe.”

Next Tuesday, the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence will hold a hearing on the Damon Allen Act which also seeks to address bond policies for violent offenders. House Bill 20 is named after a state trooper allegedly murdered by a suspect out on bond in 2017.

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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.