88th LegislatureCriminal JusticeStatewide NewsTexas Lawmakers Propose Ban on Personal Recognizance Bonds for Felons in Possession of Weapon

The proposed reforms target Harris County’s use of appointed magistrates to set low felony bond awards and PR bonds for felons in possession of weapons.
March 8, 2023
State lawmakers are considering new criminal justice reforms prompted by Harris County’s use of appointed magistrates to process criminal defendants and pattern of awarding personal bonds to defendants charged with Felon in Possession of a Weapon (FPW).

During a state Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on Tuesday, Andy Kahan of Crime Stoppers of Houston warned that Harris County releases between 30 and 50 suspects charged with FPW on personal recognizance (PR) bonds each month.

“If we are going to get serious about gun violence in this state, we also have to get serious about the issue of everyday violence,” said Kahan. “The everyday occurrence of felons in possession of a weapon who are being repeatedly released back to the community.”

Cases cited by Kahan included that of Quinnton Allen, who was on parole for armed robbery with a deadly weapon but released on PR bond for FPW in late 2021. Within months, police re-arrested and charged Allen with the murder of Luis Espinoza.

Kahan added that he had found a dozen cases where felony defendants had been released on a PR bond for possession of prohibited weapons such as machine guns. Last year, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office (HCDAO) reported a substantial increase in the number of defendants charged with assault or homicide while on bond for FPW.

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Texas Sen. Joan Huffman (R-Houston), vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, has introduced legislation to add FPW to the list of offenses ineligible for PR bond. Under current law, courts may not award PR bonds to defendants charged with capital murder, kidnapping, human trafficking, and sexual offenses.

In addition to targeting bonds for FPW, Huffman’s Senate Bill (SB) 1318 would allow prosecutors to appeal low bonds awarded to felony defendants already out on bond for another felony charge.

First Assistant Harris County District Attorney David Mitcham testified in support of SB 1318, citing a recent case in which Judge Josh Hill released a suspect with prior felony convictions on $1 bonds for charges of kidnapping, beating, and choking a female victim.

“Another district court judge in Harris County publicly defended the judge’s decision to set a $1 bond in these cases and reported to the general public that $1 bonds in felony cases are not unusual and in fact commonplace in Harris County,” said Mitcham. “The enactment of SB 1318 would enable the prosecutors in a case such as the one described above to appeal the court’s $1 felony bond decision to a higher judicial authority. Under present law there is no such practical avenue.”

Several witnesses testified in opposition to the measure, including Jeffrey Stein of the Civil Rights Corps, who argued that the appeal would create an automatic pretrial detention order pending review and effectively give prosecutors “a blanket override.”

“I think that’s more reminiscent of something out of, frankly out of Guantanamo Bay than out of the system of laws and rule of law we have here,” said Stein.

“You just lost me,” responded Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee. Whitmire noted that it is more difficult to hold the appointed magistrates than elected judges accountable for bail decisions impacting public safety.

Huffman’s bill would also shift approval of Harris County’s appointed magistrates — the hearing officers who often set bail — from the commissioners court to the presiding judge of the administrative judicial region, a position appointed by the governor. Last year, District Attorney Kim Ogg informed the Senate committee that her office had been unable to obtain basic information about the appointment of the hearing officers.

“There is a nine-judge panel that interviews hearing officers … but ultimately they are a creature of commissioners court,” said Mitcham.

In response to a reported rise in the number of cases dismissed in Harris County for lack of probable cause, Huffman also proposed requiring judicial officers to provide an oral or written explanation for the decision to dismiss.

While Mitcham supported the proposal for providing greater transparency, Waller County Justice of the Peace J.R. Woolley suggested the requirement could pose problems for smaller counties like his.

Other groups who sent representatives to oppose SB 1318 included the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, the Bail Project, and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Jacilet Griffin, whose son Evan Lee died after an alleged fight with a fellow inmate during his detention in the Harris County jail last year, also spoke in opposition to Huffman’s proposal. Lee had just completed a five-year sentence for robbery and was out on bond for Aggravated Assault, but his bond had been revoked for failure to comply with monitoring and he was re-arrested. Lee’s death has been ruled a homicide and is being investigated by the Texas Rangers.

Huffman asked Whitmire to leave SB 1318 pending while she considered changes to its language based on the concerns expressed.

The committee also took testimony on Huffman’s SB 1004 which would make the removal, tampering with, or destruction of a parolee’s electronic monitoring device a criminal offense, and Whitmire’s SB 402 to prioritize trials for murder and capital murder.

Ogg told the committee that there were 1,875 murder and capital murder cases awaiting trial in Harris County. Of those, she said 269 were out on bond while 613 were wanted fugitives.

“In total, this number of 1,875 is in essence a city of murders within a city of law-abiding citizens,” warned Ogg.

She also said that in 2017 her office filed 250 murder charges, but in 2022 filed 505, while the county’s courts only cleared 54 cases during the same year.

Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston) has also introduced legislation to create an additional six district courts in Harris County. Although Johnson spoke to the commissioners court about the bill on February 23, commissioners declined to vote on a resolution supporting the creation of the additional courts.

The Senate committee also considered a proposal to amend the Texas Constitution authored by Huffman and Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen) that would allow judges and magistrates to deny bail to some violent suspects. A similar measure passed the Senate in 2021 but failed to garner the two-thirds needed for passage in the Texas House.


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Holly Hansen

Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan 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.