Criminal JusticeLocal NewsHouston Police Chief Warns of Backlash on Felony Bail Policy, Decries Harris County Activist Judges

During a discussion on policing and criminal justice reform, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo warned of a coming public backlash on lenient felony bond policies.
February 23, 2021
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While coping with historic weather events and the COVID-19 pandemic, residents of the Houston region are also grappling with spiking homicide rates and assault crimes, and the city’s police chief is warning that a reckoning on crime and felony bail bond practices is coming.

“The American people aren’t paying attention because of [COVID-19]; they’re a little distracted, but when the American people start figuring out what’s going on there will be a backlash and it will be swift,” said Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo.

Acevedo joined the Manhattan Institute’s Rafael Mangual Tuesday for a discussion on policing and reforms during which he said the county’s criminal justice system was quickly turning into a “laughing stock,” and that a big part of a spike in violent crime both locally and nationally was due to the actions of activist judges and district attorneys.

Acevedo described how judges and magistrates in Harris County, Texas, and elsewhere are awarding low-level or personal recognizance (PR) bonds to suspects with prior convictions or who are facing multiple charges of violent criminal activity, even sometimes for murder

“It is outrageous, that we have people dying across this nation as we speak,” said Acevedo citing national statistics showing nearly 2,000 more homicide victims in 2020 compared to 2019.

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“Our partners here at Crime Stoppers Houston took a look at some of our murders here and in about 90 of them, the [suspects] were out on bond,” added Acevedo in reference to reports from Crime Stoppers Victim’s Advocate Andy Kahan

In the most recent case highlighted by Kahan, Harris County’s 248th District Court under Judge Hilary Unger last June released Jordan Grant on bond, a suspect charged with manslaughter.  Grant had been on probation for felony assault of a family member, faced additional assault charges in both Harris and Fort Bend counties, and had been sentenced to two years in prison in January of 2020 but failed to show to serve his sentence. 

Acevedo voiced support for misdemeanor bail policy changes and other policing reforms but warned that pre-trial detention policies for violent crimes should be based on risk assessments, not a suspect’s ability to pay. 

When asked about the culpability of Harris County’s district attorney, Acevedo pointed out that Kim Ogg was targeting violent offenders and was taking judges to court over bail policies.

“To be honest she did run on a progressive platform, but when you look at what she’s doing she wasn’t progressive enough for the [George] Soros-funded crowd out there that are very strategic in what they’re doing and so they actually ran a candidate to the left of her.”

He added that the police worked with the district attorney’s intake division to establish probable cause and prepare a case prior to even making an arrest, but said that frequently Harris County judges or magistrates were denying probable cause and dismissing charges altogether.

Acevedo did not shy away from the politically progressive label himself but insisted that “being progressive doesn’t mean being reckless.”  He said that activist judges and district attorneys in other parts of the country were hurting minority and poor residents by releasing violent criminals back into their communities to continue to engage in criminal activity that might include intimidating or even killing potential witnesses.

Of progressive activists and elected officials pushing for felony bond leniency, Acevedo said they were wrong on both policy and politics. “I’m not sure what the end game is, because chaos is not what the American people want.”

Among possible solutions, Acevedo called for more transparency for the entire criminal justice system and adequate funding for prosecutors, courtrooms, and public defenders to help ensure Constitutional rights to a speedy trial. 

Noting that there were more than 50,000 charged felons awaiting trial in Harris County alone, Acevedo added, “Justice delayed is justice denied.”

“It’s justice delayed and denied to an innocent person that may be wrongfully accused, it’s denied to the victim, and it’s denied to the greater society that we serve.”

Acevedo, who is president of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, lent support to police reforms that included prohibitions on “knee on neck” maneuvers like those used in the George Floyd case last year, except in “life and death” cases. He also said he supports a database to report fired officers so they could not be hired by other law enforcement agencies. 

Although he agreed that law enforcement agencies needed mental health professionals for some calls that typically go to police agencies and noted that his own department had what he called co-response teams, Acevedo said one challenge was finding qualified personnel to work under those conditions and suggested policymakers consider ways to incentivize such work.

Regarding the problem of activist judges, Acevedo said he advocates a less partisan process for electing judges and suggested the formation of political action committees to vet judicial candidates, and for state and federal lawmakers to look at transparency laws for judicial activity.

“We have to start paying attention to what’s going on in the courtroom.”

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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.