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A major overhaul of the bail process for accused felons got initial approval from Texas House on Friday night, nearly three months after the GOP’s priority legislation was blocked in the regular legislative session.
Senate Bill 6, which would require those accused of violent crimes to pay money to get out of prison, was tentatively passed by the House in a vote of 82-37. The Senate passed the law earlier this month in a 27-2 vote.
A House committee brought forward the bill on Monday after removing a controversial provision that would have prevented charities from posting bail for defendants, a practice that gained popularity last summer when groups posted bail to free those arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd, a black man murdered by a white Minneapolis policeman.
House members on Friday added a related provision to the bill that does not limit the ability of such groups to post a bond. Instead, the amendment would require charitable bail funds to be certified by county officials as nonprofits and to file reports on who they bail out of jail.
“The original invoice that arrived [from the Senate] was going to basically ban… the charitable bail process, ”State Representative Travis Clardy R-Nacogdoches said of his amendment. “We made it clear to the other side of the building that this would not hold.”
The bill still has to be passed one last time by the House before being sent to the Senate, which can either accept changes from the House or begin negotiations behind closed doors. State Senator Joan Huffman, the Republican from Houston who drafted the bill, did not answer questions about the changes in the House this week.
SB 6 would change how and if people can be released from prison before their criminal cases are resolved, when they are still legally presumed innocent. Currently, a defendant’s ability to pay money determines most Texas jail releases, but some jurisdictions – particularly in Harris County after losses in federal court – have recently moved to release more than people charged with minor crimes without needing money. The bill, in part, would limit when people without money could be released
Parts of the bill are widely supported, such as the requirement for judicial training, data collection and the requirement for officials to review an accused’s criminal history before posting bail.
But, civil rights activists and some Democrats have fought against other important parts of the legislation that they say will discriminate against the poor and people of color, including the charitable bond provision.
The bill would ban the release of those charged with violent crimes of personal connection, which do not require cash but may include restrictions such as GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug tests. Civil rights activists have argued that excluding cashless bonds alone would exacerbate wealth-based detention and lead to overcrowded prisons.
Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans, along with victims of crime and their supporters, have pushed for bail legislation, saying there is a need to keep dangerous people behind bars before they go. trial. They highlighted rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants charged with violent crimes being released on bail and then charged with new crimes.
In at least several of the examples noted by supporters of the bill, defendants were released from prison after paying a bond company or giving money to the court – practices that would not be limited by the bill. .
“This bill is not going to prevent all crimes. It won’t stop individuals from committing crimes if they make a connection, ”Huffman said ahead of the Senate vote this month. “But it will give magistrates and trained judges all the information they need to use their discretion to make what we hope are appropriate bail decisions.”
Opponents of SB 6 argued that the bill would wrongly increase the state’s dependence on cash bonds, noting that restricting personal obligations primarily penalizes low-income people, limits the judiciary and stimulate the for-profit surety industry.
“Taking away judicial discretion is not a good thing,” State Representative Ann Johnson D-Houston said on Friday. “You cannot deselect the surety industry.”
In recent years, several federal courts have ruled that bail practices in Texas’ two largest counties unconstitutionally discriminate against the poor. And civil rights groups involved in the lawsuits sent a letter to officials in all 254 Texas counties earlier this month, warning that similar litigation could follow the passage of SB 6.
“Because personal ties are the only way out of jail for people without access to money, Articles 6 and 7 [of the bill] prohibit judges from releasing large categories of people who cannot afford to pay bail, ”the letter said. “This breach of judicial discretion will not make communities safer. However, it will violate the rights of tens of thousands of people – disproportionately poor, black and brown people – every year. “
Republican-led legislation has been a priority for the governor for years, and he called the measure an emergency during the regular legislative session that ended in May. But a similar bill was killed by a deadline and the initial walkout by House Democrats to block the GOP vote bill. After Abbott called lawmakers back to address Tory priorities like voting and bail again, Democrats left town for weeks shortly after House and Senate committees voted on both law projects.
Last week, roughly halfway through a second Special Legislative Session, enough Democrats were in attendance for the legislation to finally move forward.
Shortly before the vote on SB 6, a paired resolution was brought forward, but it seemed unlikely that it would be fully adopted by the House after a vote of 82-34. The resolution, which, in a final vote, will require the approval of two-thirds of the House – or 99 members, would ask Texas voters in the May election whether judges could deny jail release on any kind of bail – in cash or personal – defendants accused of high level violent and sexual crimes.
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