Authored by Sens. Joan Huffman (R-Houston) and Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa (D-McAllen), Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 44 would amend the Texas Constitution to allow judges and magistrates to deny bail for suspects accused of violent or sexual offenses or the continuous trafficking of persons.
An identical proposal filed by Huffman in 2021 garnered bipartisan support and easily passed the Senate in a 27 to 3 vote during a third special session, but failed to obtain the two-thirds majority needed in the state House.
“SJR 44 must pass this session. In 2021, I passed this comprehensive proposal multiple times throughout the regular and special sessions in the Texas Senate with bipartisan support,” said Huffman in a statement.
“The Texas Senate clearly understands the importance of this constitutional amendment to give judges an additional tool to hold the most violent offenders in jail until their trial date.”
While there is no federal constitutional right to bail, the Texas Constitution guarantees a right to bail except for charges of Capital Murder or for defendants with multiple felonies. If two-thirds of each chamber approves SJR 44 this session, the proposal will be placed on the November 2023 ballot.
Despite drawing bipartisan support in 2021, all Harris County Democrats in the Texas House voted against placing the proposed amendment before voters.
Although she opposed the 2021 amendment, Rep. Ann Johnson (D-Houston) recently told the Houston Chronicle that she would be open to a bail-related constitutional amendment this year if Republicans would invest “in the infrastructure of the public safety system” to address criminal case backlogs and “mass incarceration.”
Andy Kahan, victims advocate at Crime Stoppers of Houston, told The Texan he saw placing the amendment on the ballot as a “win-win” with no downside.
“This way voters will be the ultimate judge and jury on whether these violent offenders can be detained without bail,” said Kahan.
Criminal court judges in Houston and other urban areas of Texas have drawn controversy in the past few years for authorizing the release of violent and repeat offenders who went on to commit additional crimes, including murder.
Even if approved by voters, SJR 44 only gives criminal court judges the option to detain suspects without bail but does not compel them to do so.
In 2021, Gov. Greg Abbott signed bail reform legislation that created a public safety reporting system for judges and magistrates to use when making bail decisions, and prohibited use of Personal Recognizance (PR) bonds for some violent offenses.
Despite state bail reforms, some judges have continued to release violent suspects. Last month, Harris County District Criminal Court Judge Josh Hill authorized the release of ex-con Aubrey Taylor on bonds totaling just $2 after Taylor was arrested for allegedly kidnapping, beating, and attempting to strangle a female victim.
“Unfortunately, we have continued to see our communities terrorized by violent defendants out on bond, including offenders out on multiple bonds,” said Huffman, who is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice.
Huffman has also introduced legislation that would establish a mandatory 10-year imprisonment sentence for certain felonies committed with a firearm, a proposal bolstered by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick in his official list of legislative priorities released Monday.
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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.