A successful point of order on the floor last week caused the bill to be delayed, recommitted to committee, and remedied.
Criminal justice reform has become a cause du jour not only on the political left, but increasingly on the right, too. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have celebrated reforms to things such as sentencing, civil asset forfeiture, and to place more focus on preventing recidivism.
But reforms satisfactory to both the left and right are not the only ones that have been implemented. In progressive enclaves such as the cities of Austin and Houston, local governments and their court system have adopted policies to relax restrictions on defendants receiving bail. It has led to violent, repeat, or flight-risk offenders being released on little or no bail.
In 2017, the City of Austin issued an edict to its municipal court to prioritize personal recognizance (PR) bonds for defendants deemed “indigent” by the court. A PR bond requires no collateral for release, instead expecting defendants to show up to their court date on their own conscience.
The most high-profile consequence of that policy came in January 2020 when Dylan Woodburn — a homeless man with a lengthy rap sheet who was released on PR bond a month earlier for a burglary charge — entered an Austin restaurant and stabbed three patrons, killing one.
Harris County has adopted lax bail policies as well. Although misdemeanor bail policy in Harris County is largely determined by the terms of a federal lawsuit settlement, criminal court judges and magistrates still set bail for felony suspects. Many of these judges, who were swept into office during the county’s “blue wave” election of 2018, have adopted a lenient approach to pre-trial release conditions, even for habitual offenders accused of violent crimes such as aggravated assault and even murder.
According to reports from Crime Stoppers Houston (CSH), over 115 people have been killed over the past two years by alleged suspects who were released on multiple bonds, including PR bonds. Growing concern over the release of suspects accused of violent crime has prompted some bipartisan pushback, with even the county’s Democratic district attorney testifying in support of more stringent release conditions for what she called “sequential violent offenders.”
Andy Kahan, director of Victim Services and Advocacy with CSH told The Texan, “I’m confident that whatever comes out of the session between the two chambers’ versions will drastically improve what is happening now with violent offenders being let out onto the streets.”
Once passed, Kahan believes the judges issuing those bond releases for such offenders will relent.
“I’m highly optimistic that they will realize the eyes of Texas are upon them.”
House Bill (HB) 20, a priority for House leadership, restricts the conditions under which a violent or sexual offender may receive any kind of bail.
Under the bill, judges and magistrates must be provided a pretrial assessment by which to make a judgment on the defendant’s likelihood to show up to appear before the court and their potential threat to public safety.
The assessment must be “objective,” based on an analysis based on empirical data, and cannot “consider factors that disproportionately affect” minority groups.
Specific charges for which PR bond is prohibited include:
- Capital murder
- Trafficking of persons
- Continuous trafficking of persons
- Continuous sexual abuse of young child or children
- Indecency with a child
- Aggravated sexual assault
- Aggravated promotion of prostitution
- Compelling prostitution
- Sexual performance by a child
When making a bail assessment, a judge or magistrate shall consider the defendant’s criminal history during the previous 10 years. Anything prior to the previous decade, according to the bill, should not be considered unless it involves the movement of controlled substances or a crime that cause bodily injury.
One amendment by Rep. Eugene Wu (D-Houston) was adopted that would require, if a defendant is found not guilty, that they be reimbursed their posted bail in full.
It also establishes notification requirements both to the defendant and his counsel as well as other community officials.
Unveiling his criminal justice priority list, among which HB 20 is included, Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) stated, “Smarter Justice, Safer Texas is the culmination of the work by bipartisan members of the Texas House to keep dangerous predators off our street, keep the public safe, and defend the rights of the accused.”
Discretion on bail bonding has been left to judges since the current system developed. But the recent lurch toward precipitous leniency, and away from measured caution, has caused serious concern throughout Texas.
Holly Hansen contributed to this report.
Editor’s Note: The number of people killed by alleged suspects out on bail has been updated.
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Brad Johnson is a senior reporter for The Texan and an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.