As the death of George Floyd pushes to the forefront a national debate over policing and criminal justice reforms, Texas’ most populous county continues to struggle to contain rising crime rates and recidivism related to pretrial release policies.
In one of the most recent examples, one of two men arrested and charged with the April murder of Guy-Anthony Owen Allen had been repeatedly released on felony bonds over the previous 15 months.
The primary suspect in the murder case, 24-year-old Vernon Menifee, had a lengthy criminal history dating back to 2013 that included 6 prior felony convictions. Court records indicate police knew him to be a member of a criminal street gang known as The Early Boys, and his most recent conviction in August of 2018 led to a six-month jail sentence.
But by January of 2019, Menifee was again arrested and charged with Felon in Possession of a Weapon. After bonding out, Menifee would be arrested on additional felony charges again in December of 2019 for Engaging in Organized Criminal Activity and in March of 2020 for Burglary of a Building, but in each case he was released on bond from Harris County’s 209th Criminal Court.
Andy Kahan, Director of Victim Services of Crime Stoppers Houston, says that Menifee’s story is just the latest example of local criminal justice practices that are not protecting the public.
“I am looking at a list of 20 victims who were murdered over the last year to year and half, where the murder suspects were already out on multiple bonds,” Kahan told The Texan.
“These murders are tragic, yet utterly preventable.”
Despite repeated felony arrests, Menifee’s bonds were not revoked until May of this year when he was charged with murdering Allen. While the county’s public defender’s office requested a $30,000 bond, the judge granted the district attorney’s request for no bail, and Menifee is being held without bond in the Harris County Jail system.
A second suspect arrested for the shooting death of Allen is 35-year-old Derrick Bacon, who has been charged with Murder and Aggravated Robbery with a Deadly Weapon, but Bacon has bonded out on amounts of $50,000 and $40,000 respectively.
While bail reform proposals often enjoy bipartisan support, some reform advocates warn that entirely eliminating bonds and pre-trial detentions will put the public at risk.
In an interview with The Texan earlier this year, Director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Right On Crime initiative Derek Cohen explained that a better system would include individualized risk assessments rather than blanket policies.
“We’re going to need to get to a point where some people are going to just be denied bail outright,” Cohen said. “Currently we can only do that for murder, but for serious crimes, violence, sexual offenses and such, we need to give the judge the ability to say you cannot release this person at all.”
Since the murder of George Floyd, much of the criminal justice reform debate has centered on defunding or redefining the role of law enforcement, but communities like Houston and Harris County continue to grapple with increased criminal activity, including a 50 percent increase in murders.
Although Harris County’s government is exploring reforms that could lead to decreased funding for county law enforcement and an increased role for the public defender’s office, the City of Houston has opted to increase the police department’s budget while implementing some reforms.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Cypress, Texas. 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.