Conservatives Celebrate New Bail Law, but Opponents Warn It Will Target Poor Texans

Many fear that a new Texas law will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor.
Many fear that a new Texas law will disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash
Four years ago on Thanksgiving afternoon, Trooper Damon Allen pulled over a car on Interstate 45, south of Fairfield. The officer was returning to his patrol vehicle when the person he’d stopped took aim with a rifle and fatally shot him.

The man accused of killing Allen had previously been convicted of assaulting a public servant and was out on bail, according to Austin NBC affiliate KXAN.

Allen’s death rattled Texas law enforcement and Republican lawmakers vowed to reform the bail system. On Monday, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law the “Damon Allen Act,” which will require those accused of violent crimes to pay cash to get released from jail.

“That’s one way that you keep his memory alive, and it’s one way you make sure that something that was terrible means something,” Allen’s widow told Waco’s KWTX after the signing. “And it’ll mean something forever.”

Conservatives statewide are celebrating the new law as a necessary measure to keep Texans safe. Yet certain lawmakers and civil rights advocates warn the bill will disproportionately penalize the poor, especially Texans of color.

Senate Bill 6 alters how Texans awaiting trial can be released from jail during a time when they’re still presumed innocent. It will prevent those accused of violent crimes from being released on personal bond, which allows defendants to leave jail without paying anything upfront, but can include certain restrictions.

During the Houston signing ceremony, Abbott assured his audience that the Damon Allen Act will make it more difficult for “dangerous criminals” to commit more crimes. Georgetown state Sen. Charles Schwertner echoed that sentiment, saying SB 6 will protect Texans and law enforcement officers.

“The #DamonAllenAct was signed into law, prohibiting the release of people charged w/ violent crimes,” Schwertner said in a tweet. “Trooper Damon Allen was killed in Freestone County by a man out on bond after twice attacking LEOs.”
Yet opponents note that others accused of violent crimes will still be able to get out — so long as they can fork over the cash.

Democratic Dallas state Rep. John Turner voted against SB 6 in part because he was uncomfortable with the “significant expansion of offenses for which a judge could never provide a PR bond.” He also disapproved of the fact that the bill will make it more burdensome for charitable organizations to bail people out.

“This is a difficult issue because our current system doesn’t work very well,” Turner said. “I mean, you sometimes have high-risk individuals who should not be released pretrial who are, and then commit further crimes. And then you have others who are detained because they can’t make bail, even though they don’t present a significant risk.”

“If you make a mistake in Texas, you’re going to continue to pay for it for the rest of your life." – Laquita Garcia of the Texas Organizing Project

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Black and Latino Texans are already criminalized for being poor, said Laquita Garcia, statewide policy coordinator with the Texas Organizing Project (TOP), a grassroots group focused on advancing racial and economic justice. But the Damon Allen Act will further ramp up the over-policing of those communities.

The bill isn’t built on public safety, Garcia said, adding that such “regressive legislation” will force many innocent Texans into pleading guilty. Around 1 in 3 of those bailed out through TOP's charitable bail fund see their cases dismissed, she said.

In Texas’ “two-tiered criminal justice system,” poor defendants must sometimes wait for months or even up to a year to see a judge, Garcia said. Some may plead guilty even when they’re not so that they can return home to their families and continue providing for them.

“That’s a form of discrimination in my eyes and always has been,” she said.

The Damon Allen Act will likely hit certain areas in the state harder than others, she said. Dallas and Houston have jails that are at capacity, and under this bill, they’ll continue to be "filled with Black and brown bodies" from the state’s impoverished communities.

Texas needs to adopt a system in which people who break the law can have a shot at rehabilitation, Garcia said. Formerly incarcerated folks need a chance to become productive members of society. But the state’s “right-wing agenda” preys on those who have erred without addressing the root cause of criminal behavior, she said.

If someone committed a violent offense 20 years ago, it could come back to haunt them, Garcia said.

“If you make a mistake in Texas, you’re going to continue to pay for it for the rest of your life,” she said. “Because you’re never going to be deemed time served or have paid your debt to society.”

The provision of SB 6 that prevents cashless release of Texans accused of violent crimes will go into effect Dec. 2, according to The Texas Tribune.
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Simone Carter, a staff news reporter at the Dallas Observer, graduated from the University of North Texas' Mayborn School of Journalism. Her favorite color is red, but she digs Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.
Contact: Simone Carter