Who Stands to Profit Off the Texas GOP's Proposed Bail Changes?

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says the GOP's embattled bail bill will make people safer.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott says the GOP's embattled bail bill will make people safer. Gage Skidmore
Texas state Rep. Joan Huffman’s bail bill is facing scrutiny from members of her own party.

In a hearing held Saturday at the state capitol in Austin, Huffman’s bill weathered a string of tough questions from fellow Republican and bail reform advocates alike.

If passed, Senate Bill 6 will restrict access to charitable bail funds for people in jail awaiting trial, as well as hiking bail rates for those accused of certain violent crimes or repeated nonviolent offenses.

GOP lawmakers and others opponents of the bill criticized the provisions aimed at limiting the operations of charities that bail people out of jail who can’t afford to pay for it themselves while they await trial.

“Representative Geren especially was asking some pretty hard questions of some of the committee members, and of some of the people testifying for the bill, as well as of the author,” said Katya Ehresman, an organizer with Common Cause Texas.

Rep. Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth-area Republican, pointed out in blunt terms what advocates say is a fundamental contradiction in Huffman’s bill: the legislation kneecaps charitable bail fund operations, but leaves private bail bonds available to people accused of committing similarly severe crimes.

“What difference does it make where the money comes from?” Geren said. “If this is a way just to pay the bail bondsmen, let’s just say it.”

“That was just laying it out, the double standard between charitable foundations, and for-profit bail bonds,” Ehresman said.

“This bill will not keep dangerous people behind bars; it will keep poor people behind bars." - Nick Hudson, ACLU of Texas

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“Even the use of the word ‘double standard’ by a Republican member during that hearing was a win for a lot of the advocates because that was one of the sections of the bill that we had the biggest issue with, because it obviously was hypocritical … they’re just funneling people towards a more predatory for-profit industry,” she said.

Advocates racked up more wins this week: In a hearing Monday morning, lawmakers struck down the sections of the bill limiting charitable bond organizations.

Still, policy experts say that even with those provisions removed, SB 6 will put more cash in the pockets of the private bail bond industry by hiking bail rates.

Bail bond charities are designed to serve defendants held in jail who cannot afford to pay their bail (which is set by courts based on the crime they are accused of), as well as any past criminal convictions, bail or parole violations.

Gov. Greg Abbott, a vocal proponent of SB 6, has argued that raising bail rates and restricting charitable bail funds will keep behind bars those defendants most likely to commit violent crimes while out on bond. Abbott, Huffman and the lawmakers aligned behind SB 6 advocate for the bill through appeals to public safety.

“The bail doesn’t actually do anything that money bail doesn’t do,” said Nick Hudson, Policy and Advocacy Strategist at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “It doesn’t keep dangerous people locked up; it keeps poor people locked up.”

In effect, SB 6 doesn't differentiate between pretrial defendants according to the potential public safety threat they present. Rather, it sorts them according to their ability to pay a private bondsmen to get out jail, Hudson explained.

“This bill will not keep dangerous people behind bars, it will keep poor people behind bars," Hudson added. "And we need Texans who care about making our state safer and fairer to stand up and demand changes to the bill.”

With bail bond charity restrictions removed, the bill passed out of the committee stage Monday afternoon, and could be voted into law by the Republican-controlled House as early as Wednesday. 
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Michael Murney is a reporting fellow at the Dallas Observer and a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. His reporting has appeared in Chicago’s South Side Weekly and the Chicago Reader.
Contact: Michael Murney