Advocates Say Republican Bail Bills Could Worsen Racial Inequities Behind Bars

Many fear that bills in the Texas Legislature will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.EXPAND
Many fear that bills in the Texas Legislature will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.
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Bail reform advocates are keeping a watchful eye on the Texas Legislature, with some fearing that well-meaning bills could backfire as discriminatory.

Authored by Republican Houston state Sen. Joan Huffman, Senate Bill 21 would prevent those charged with a crime from being released on a personal bond if they'd recently been convicted of a felony or Class A or B misdemeanor. Possession of marijuana and driving with an invalid license fall under the latter. Personal recognizance bonds don't require defendants to pay cash or post a bond before being released, though there are fees.

Those charged with multiple offenses, or people who committed an offense while out on bail, also wouldn’t have access to personal bonds.

Huffman insists the bill would prevent recently released violent offenders from committing more crimes. In a tweet, she posted an article about a man who is accused of killing a Houston police sergeant and was released on bond.

“The need for bail reform via my SB 21 is real,” Huffman said. “This is a slap in the face to law enforcement.”

Although widely supported by Republicans, some fear that Huffman's bill would disproportionately target jails’ minority and low-income populations. The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas submitted written testimony in opposition to Huffman’s bill, which the Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence heard last Thursday.

As filed, SB 21 is “unwise, unfair and unconstitutional,” said Nick Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas. It would hamper judges’ discretion in allocating personal bonds for large numbers of people.

Huffman’s bill would install new financial barriers to defendants’ pretrial release, which could work to worsen racial inequities, Hudson said in the written testimony. Under a money bail system, minorities are more likely to be detained pretrial.

Compared with white men, Black men receive bail amounts 35% higher, Hudson said; it’s 19% for Latinos. Nixing personal bonds would exacerbate racial disparities behind bars, he added.

Around 13% of the state’s population is Black, but in 2019, Black people made up one-third of Texas prison inmates, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Hudson said his organization is committed to working with any office to make the bail system fair, safe and just.

“[SB 21] doubles down on our broken money bail system and further criminalizes poverty,” Hudson said in a statement. “It also undermines the Constitution and rule of law at the expense of public safety.”

SB 21 would also widen the net for pretrial detention, said Krish Gundu, co-founder and executive director of the Texas Jail Project. The state’s jail population is already strained, but Huffman’s measure would further inflate it.

Plus, the bill seems tailor-made for Harris County, she said; it wouldn’t necessarily be fit for other areas.

“My personal feeling is that this is a pushback on bail reform efforts that are sweeping through the country,” Gundu told the Observer.

Another bill is “much worse” than Huffman’s, Gundu said. Kerrville state Rep. Andrew Murr, a Republican, filed House Bill 20, which could make it harder for certain people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and mental health issues to be released on bond.

“Those kinds of folks, if they sit in jail, they decompensate pretty rapidly," Gundu said. "And right now, the jails have become the largest confinements of people with mental illness."

Early in the pandemic, an executive order by Gov. Greg Abbott banned the release of those previously convicted or accused of violent crimes. It came as officials in some localities, such as those in Harris County, pushed to release inmates because of COVID-19 concerns.

During his State of the State address, Abbott called on the state’s legislators to fix the bail system “that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back out onto our streets,” according to The Texas Tribune. Named in honor of a state trooper who was killed by a suspect out of bond, Abbott made the "Damon Allen Act" an emergency item this session.

One bail reform measure has taken on the name. Filed by Democratic state Rep. Ron Reynolds of Missouri City, the Damon Allen Act would cover both the areas of low-income defendants and repeat offenders, according to Houston Public Media. So far, it hasn’t attracted any cosponsors.

Meanwhile, Gundu said she supports House Bill 1352 by Democratic Dallas state Rep. Jasmine Crockett because it would accelerate the release of pretrial defendants, some of whom must wait for a period of months or even years.

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