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Days after the start of a short legislative session, Texas lawmakers rush to pass a GOP priority bill that would make it harder for some arrested but not convicted to get out of jail without paying money.
House and Senate lawmakers tabled corresponding bills to change state bail practices earlier this week, echoing legislation that was not passed during the session ordinary. On Saturday, the committees of the two chambers approved the bills and sent them to all the chambers after nearly three hours of debate in the Senate and nine hours in the House.
Radical bail legislation would change how and if people can be released from prison before their criminal cases are resolved, when they are still legally presumed innocent. The bill would ban the release of those accused of violent crimes unless they have enough money, and restrict the ability of charities to pay to get people out of jail.
While the two Democrats on the Senate committee supported Senate Bill 6, House Democrats have spoken out strongly against the same Bill House 2, arguing that it would lead to mass detention disproportionately affecting people of color, and it would create an over-reliance on money in the Texas probation system that would be unfair to poor people. Both houses of the Texas Legislature have a Republican majority.
During the hearings, the republican bill’s authors, victims of crime and their supporters argued that new bail laws are needed to keep dangerous people behind bars before their trials, stressing the ‘rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants charged with violent crimes being released from prison on bail and then charged with new crimes.
Supporters of the bill have also fought against increasing the number of courts releasing defendants on personal bail, which does not require them to have money to get out of prison, but may include restrictions such as GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug testing.
“SB 6 is legislation that is truly a direct response to the increase in the number of violent and habitual offenders released on personal and low cash bail,” said Senator Joan Huffman, Republican of Houston and author on Saturday. Bill. “We have let down our communities, we have let down our citizens, we have definitely let down the victims, and it is time to do something.”
House Democrats and civil rights advocates opposed to the legislation have targeted the bills’ continued reliance on the cash bond, noting that it primarily penalizes those with low incomes.
“What is the ability to post a cash bond, how does that make a community safe? Asked State Representative Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who heads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus. “The bill pushes more people into the cash bond system by preventing their ability to have a personal connection in a long list of situations.”
In Texas, almost everyone who is arrested has a constitutional right to be released on bail. The current exceptions are those charged with capital murder or those charged with certain repeated crimes or breach of bail.
Once a person is charged with a felony and arrested, the courts set the bond by deciding on the restrictions necessary to release the person before their criminal case is resolved. The bail system has two key goals: to protect public safety and to ensure that defendants return for their court dates.
Often in Texas, as in many states, the possibility of being released pending trial comes down to a dollar amount. If the defendant can post an assigned cash bond amount or pay a non-refundable percentage to a private bonding company, he can usually be released.
House Democrats also criticized the provision limiting the ability of charities to post bail for defendants. These organizations became popular after they bailed out protesters arrested during the unrest after a police officer murdered George Floyd. HB 2 and SB 6 would prevent groups from posting bail for people accused – or already convicted of – of a violent crime. Any group could still post a bond for up to three people every six months, and religious organizations would be exempt from the restriction.
In the Senate, Huffman dismissed criticism that the measure would lead to mass detention, saying it had a process in place for defendants to say they couldn’t pay bail and asked judges to use the least restrictive bail conditions. But Democrats and civil rights activists have said the long form that those arrested would have to fill out in prison to declare indigence is too cumbersome, requiring information on tax expenditures, non-cash assets and debts or risk of perjury.
“SB 6 strives to keep the most serious violent offenders away from our communities until they can have their trials,” Huffman said at the hearing. “On the other hand, he is very aware of low level, low risk offenders, that there must be the least restrictive means used to ensure their appearance in court.”
While some parts of the bills have been very divisive, others are less controversial. For example, the bills would require more judicial training on bail and provide more information to court officials who set bail, such as an accused’s criminal history.
Still, Democrats and civil rights activists say GOP bail legislation is a step in the wrong direction and would exacerbate systemic racism in the Texas criminal justice system, where black men are arrested and jailed. disproportionately.
“We’re going to double down on those mistakes from the past,” Moody said. “We’ve done a tremendous job in this body to try to turn around these things, to try to promote freedom, to look at restorative justice … It’s going to set us back.”
For years, civil rights groups and federal courts nationwide and in Texas have scrutinized dependency on cash bond systems. In Harris and Dallas counties, federal courts have ordered changes to bail practices deemed unconstitutional because they have led to the routine detention of people who have not been convicted of a felony simply because that they were poor.
In an ongoing federal lawsuit in Houston, civil rights attorneys raised the case of Preston Chaney, a 64-year-old man who caught the coronavirus in Harris County jail and has died. He had been jailed for months on charges of stealing gardening equipment and meat from a garage. If he could have paid around $ 100, he could have been released from prison shortly after his arrest.
But Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans say bail changes are urgently needed to keep more defendants behind bars, citing examples of violent crimes committed by those released from prison on bail. Abbott began seeking bail changes after Texas State Soldier Damon Allen was killed during a traffic stop in 2017. The suspect was released from jail on $ 15,000 bail in the time, and the court official who set his bail later said he would have set the dollar amount higher had he known the man had previously been charged with assaulting a county MP by Smith.
Harris County Republicans also reported violent crimes allegedly committed by people on bail, with some defendants posting high bail to be released and others being released on personal bail. At the Capitol, people whose relatives were killed wondered how the suspect could have been released on bail.
This included Melanie Infinger, whose 20-year-old pregnant daughter Caitlynne was killed in 2019, allegedly by her ex-husband. He had been released on personal bail after being accused of assaulting Caitlynne, court records show. He was out on bail for impaired driving at the time of the assault.
“[Caitlynne] reassured me that there was no way he could go away because… he faces felony and multiple misdemeanors, ”Infinger told lawmakers on Saturday. murder.”
HB 2 and SB 6 are similar, but not identical, to the final version of the bail bill that was not passed earlier this year after House Democrats left the chamber to kill a GOP voting measure. After the regular legislative session ended in May, Abbott pledged to bring lawmakers back to the State Capitol for a special session to pass bail and voting legislation.
Along with the priority bail bills, the two committees also approved related resolutions to allow courts to deny release from prison more often in certain violent cases. If passed, the resolutions would change the Texas Constitution if approved by voters in November. But measures to change the Constitution must be passed by a two-thirds majority – forcing Democrats to join Republicans on the bill.
Kate McGee contributed to this report.