By Jolie McCullough
TEXAS TRIBUNE – The Texas Senate on Wednesday approved the chamber’s priority bail legislation that aims to keep more people accused or previously convicted of violent crimes in jail before trial unless they can post cash bonds.
Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, previously said her Senate Bill 21 is meant to “address the appalling uptick in violent crimes by defendants out on multiple personal bonds,” which don’t require cash up front. The bill passed out of the Senate on a vote of 23-8 and will now head to the House.
Many bail reform advocates have criticized the bill, as well as the governor’s priority legislation in the House, for still relying on a money-based system. Texas’ systems for deciding how to release people from jail while awaiting trial have long been criticized for unfairly keeping poor people locked up simply because they don’t have the cash to post bail.
“Requiring more Texans to pay to stay out of jail before trial is unfair, unsafe, and wastes tax dollars,” Nick Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said after the vote. “This bill doubles down on our broken money bail system and further criminalizes poverty.”
When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release someone from jail but ensure the defendant comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is based on a dollar amount.
Aside from restricting release on personal, no-cost bonds, SB 21 would require court officers setting bail to first review a defendant’s criminal history and citizenship status. State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, unsuccessfully tried to remove the citizenship requirement, arguing it could lead to racial profiling.
“Nothing in a person’s citizenship status makes them more likely to be a flight risk,” he said.
Huffman disagreed, saying someone who didn’t have ties to the community or had an immigration hold could be a risk to not show up to future court hearings.
Multiple senators also questioned Huffman’s bill for limiting who could be bailed out by nonprofit charitable bail organizations, a move that has been promoted by the for-profit bail bonds industry. After the in-custody Minneapolis death of George Floyd prompted nationwide unrest and protesters were arrested across the country, nonprofits that sought to post people’s bail saw millions of dollars in donations.
SB 21 would also bar charitable organizations that are not churches from posting bond for anyone accused, or previously convicted, of a violent crime. In Texas, the Texas Organizing Project paid to bail out and track hundreds of people in several counties last year. Huffman assured protesters accused of misdemeanors would still be able to be bonded out by such groups under her bill, but said it was important to limit the nonprofits because they’re a “new phenomenon.”
“I don’t think there’s enough accountability, we don’t know who these individuals are,” Huffman said.
In response, state Sen. Borris Miles, a Black Democrat from Houston, detailed a hypothetical scenario where he could be peacefully protesting but someone with a rifle would come up and call him the N-word.
“I’m sure I’m going to respond in a physical way … so am I a violent protester then and they can’t bond me out?” he posed.
Huffman’s bill is largely a response to Harris County. After federal courts found the county’s pretrial release practices unconstitutionally discriminatory against poor people, local officials in 2019 stopped requiring most people accused of low-level crimes from putting up cash to get out of jail on bond. The court ruling doesn’t apply to felony cases, but a rising homicide count and repeat high-profile murders allegedly committed by people released on bond has sparked outcry from local Republicans and law enforcement.
On the floor, state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, expressed the need for a change in Harris County. He referred to Caitlynne Infinger Guajardo, who in 2019 was murdered, allegedly by her husband days after he was released on a no-cost, personal bond after allegedly assaulting her.
Bail reform advocates have pointed to other deaths, including Preston Chaney, who died in the Harris County jail from COVID-19 after he was kept behind bars on a low-level charge for months because he was unable to pay $100 to get out.