Criminal JusticeLocal NewsHarris County to Release Bail Policy Data, Rejects Partnership with Victim’s Advocates

Judge Hidalgo rejected working directly with Crime Stoppers Houston on bail reform impact studies, saying the county should instead work with groups who do not have “an axe to grind.”
October 28, 2020
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At the Harris County Commissioners Court Tuesday, Crime Stoppers’ Andy Kahan described the grisly murder of Hunter Penn, allegedly committed by suspects out on bond.

“We had a defendant charged along with another defendant of stabbing to death a guy 85 times, in which his head was also nearly decapitated.”

Kahan, victims’ advocate for Crime Stoppers Houston, has been tracking murders committed in Harris County over the past two years in which suspects were out on either multiple felony bonds, bond forfeiture, personal recognizance bonds, and or failure to revoke bond.

According to Kahan, Hunter Penn is the 66th victim of what he refers to as a “bond pandemic.” His investigation showed that one suspect in Penn’s October 8 murder, Oscar Garcia, had 10 prior felony convictions, including one for bail jumping. Despite a prosecutor’s request that Garcia be denied bail, he was released on bond for felony drug charges on September 24.

A second suspect, Blas Solis, who allegedly drove away from the crime scene with Penn’s body in the back seat of his car, had been released on bond for charges of misdemeanor assault. Although a witness reported that Solis had violated previously issued no contact orders, Judge Alex Salgado (D) denied the prosecutor’s request to revoke bond and released him. 

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Kahan first brought his concerns to the commissioners court two weeks ago, when Commissioner Jack Cagle (R-Pct.4) asked the county to consider a study on how bail bond policies are impacting victims, especially those in minority and poor communities. 

Commissioner Rodney Ellis (D-Pct.1) had expressed concern over “fear-mongering” in highlighting select cases of recidivism, and county Judge Lina Hidalgo (D) objected to publishing data that she said some might mischaracterize. After some discussion, Cagle withdrew his motion to be re-worded and brought back on October 27.

On Tuesday, Cagle presented a new motion for the county’s Justice Administration Department (JAD) work with Crime Stoppers of Houston and “any other community stakeholders identified by JAD and any relevant county departments to produce a report” on the number of defendants who have, while free on cash bail, PR bonds or any form of pretrial release since January 2018, become defendants in subsequent felony or misdemeanor cases.

Hidalgo objected to Cagle’s motion saying that she did not want the county to work with Kahan or Crime Stoppers Houston.

“I don’t feel comfortable putting the county, working on a report with an interested party, that is Mr. Kahan, I just don’t think that’s appropriate.”

Hidalgo instead suggested a substitute motion that would grant JAD permission to share non-confidential data about numbers of defendants released on bonds on request to researchers and members of the public who request it “for the purpose of conducting research or producing publicly available reports.”

Judge Hidalgo also said she preferred to work with Professor Paul Heaton at the University of Pennsylvania’s Quattrone Center, who Cagle had also referenced in his motion. 

When Cagle asked why the county could work with Heaton and not Kahan, Hidalgo said that Heaton’s work was an independent study. 

Calling Heaton an “independent academic,” Hidalgo said, “he doesn’t have an axe to grind.” 

“We do…have outside independent parties that don’t have an axe to grind one way or the other…”

As a researcher at the center founded by Frank Quattrone, Heaton previously argued that the correlation of pretrial detention with future criminal activity shows that such detentions are causal, and he advocates for reforms on that basis. 

Recently, Heaton also dismissed criticisms of controversial Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, who presides over a city with one of the highest homicide rates in the nation. Heaton said it was too soon to tell if Krasner’s policies were contributing to the rising crime rate, and suggested critics were “sniping.”

Kahan told the court he had been speaking with both Heaton and JAD Director Jim Bethke, and that he thought they could all be on the same page in presenting data that shed light on the perspective of crime victims. 

Although Cagle asked for a vote on his original motion, Ellis motioned to table it. Instead, commissioners approved Hidalgo’s substitute motion 4-1. Cagle agreed to vote aye since it did accomplish sharing the data, but added his vote was “begrudging.” Commissioner Steve Radack (R-Pct. 3) cast the only vote in opposition.

Misdemeanor bond policies in Harris County are currently subject to the settlement of a federal lawsuit known as ODonnell. 

Although ODonnell is purportedly only applicable to misdemeanor cases and a similar lawsuit over felony bond is still pending, a number of judges in Harris County have applied the more lenient terms to felony cases as well.

In response to Kahan’s concerns, Ellis said while the story was tragic, “you can’t necessarily let a single case out of 100,000 criminal cases found annually in Harris County dictate what you do on policy.” He noted that Garcia had been released on cash bond, and Solis on general obligation bond.

“As the ODonnell court mentioned, the Constitution outweighs the interests of eliminating all risks,” said Ellis.

On Wednesday, JAD will hold a virtual public meeting for public discussion of the ODonnell settlement implementation at 12:30 p.m.  

Houston, which lies primarily within Harris County, has reportedly seen a 41 percent spike in murder cases over last year, and a recently released Texas Department of Public Safety report indicates Houston and Harris County criminal activity began climbing in 2019.

After the meeting, Kahan brushed off disparaging remarks over his work. “Crime Stoppers believes public safety is at a higher risk when career habitual offenders are continually released back to the community.”

“Yes, I will agree that I do have an axe to grind,” Kahan told The Texan. “My axe to grind is for the over 60 people that have been killed by defendants released on a multitude of bonds in Harris County.”

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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.