Let it never be said that Texas Gov. Greg Abbott is incapable of reaction. Since the election of President Donald Trump, he's molded his priorities in the shape of the president, focusing on issues like "sanctuary cities," a term we're still waiting for him to define. After eight students and two teachers died in a mass shooting at Santa Fe High School this spring, Abbott took up the mantle of stemming school violence, issuing a 40-plus-page packet of recommendations, most of which the Legislature will pick up when it reconvenes in January.
Tuesday afternoon, Abbott addressed another hot-button issue, bail reform, in Waco. The governor wasn't, as one might've expected, reacting to the demands of criminal justice reform advocates. Instead, Abbott was provoked by a different stimuli — the case of Damon Allen, a 41-year-old state trooper shot during a traffic stop on Thanksgiving in Fairfield, about 60 miles east of Waco.
Following her husband's death, Kasey Allen went to Abbott to push for tougher bail conditions for those with a history of violence against law enforcement, as well as better sharing of information between law enforcement agencies. The suspect in Allen's shooting, Dabrett Black, was out of jail on a $15,500 bond for allegedly assaulting a Smith County sheriff's deputy.
"The man who killed my husband should've been behind bars, not on the road that day," Allen said. "I knew that to honor [my husband's] memory I needed to work toward meaningful change in our system. That's why I've been pushing for tougher laws and to fix our bail system in a way that will keep violent and dangerous criminals off our streets."
In response to several meetings with Allen, Abbott proposed Wednesday that the Legislature pass a bail reform bill that would require judges setting bail to consider defendants' entire criminal history, add protection of law enforcement as a factor that can be considered when bail is set and implement a statewide case management system, so judges and magistrates setting bail would have information about all charges and convictions a defendant might have.
"This must be done to prevent any more deaths like what happened to Damon Allen," Abbott said. "Texas must take action to keep dangerous criminals off the street."
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After Abbott announced the proposed changes, reporters in Waco pushed the governor on whether he'd support the type of bail reform criminal justice reform advocates support — lowering or eliminating cash bail for defendants deemed to be low risk during an assessment process. Abbott said that legislators could consider that type of reform as well, as they took up his proposals.
"Our goal for people who are not dangerous to the community is to not house non-dangerous criminals behind bars, but put them on a pathway toward productivity and contributing back to society," Abbott said. "Our goal at the same time is to make sure that if there are criminals who are dangerous, who pose a threat to a law enforcement officer or the community, we’re going to get them off the street and keep them off the street."
The Texas Organize Project, a group that promotes social justice in Dallas, Harris and Bexar counties, said that Abbott's proposals wouldn't do anything to fix the problems in Texas' bail system that have led to lawsuits across the state, including in Harris and Dallas counties.
“The truth is, racism is all over this problem and Abbott’s response. The people who are sitting in jail awaiting trial, who are separated from their families, who are losing their jobs and homes because they can’t afford bail are mostly black and Latino," Texas Organizing Project communications director Mary Moreno said. "Abbott doesn’t care about us. Also, some of the charges listed by Abbott such as evading police and assault on an officer are often used by police to harass people of color. It’s their word against the officers. The justice system rarely looks at why the officer stopped the person in the first place, and racial profiling remains our dirty secret."