Criminal Justice

Proposed GOP Bail Legislation Would Put Harris County At Legal Risk, Texas Senators Hear

SB 21, authored by State Senator Joan Huffman, would make it harder for people previously accused of violent offenses to obtain bail.

Texas Senate Committee on Jurisprudence hearing on SB 21

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A new GOP-backed bill in the Texas Senate to restrict the use of bail for certain defendants would put Harris County at risk of violating a federal mandate, according to testimony from a county official on Thursday.

The Texas Senate Jurisprudence Committee on Thursday held its first hearing on Senate Bill 21, which would make it more difficult for people previously accused of violent offenses to bond out of jail.

With a Republican majority on the Jurisprudence Committee, and the bill’s sponsor in the chair, some version of SB 21 is likely to reach the Senate floor.

But if it passes without including some form of indigent defense relief, it could pose a serious problem for Harris County, as Colin Cerupan of the Harris County Justice Administration Department testified: The county is currently bound to the terms of a settlement from a landmark case — O’Donnell v. Harris County — which found its use of misdemeanor cash bail practices unconstitutional.

“SB 21 would require Harris County to violate federal consent decrees, exposing Harris County to costly litigation, like O'Donnell, which cost Harris County taxpayers $60-$100 million,” Cepuran said.

Testimony on Thursday was sharply divided, as opponents and supporters of the GOP-sponsored bill made their cases.

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg testified in support of the bill, arguing that, in 2015, about 3,200 offenders out on bond were accused in 6,348 crimes. By 2020, approximately 10,500 individuals on bond were accused of 18,796 new offenses.

“Judges are supposed to, under the law, consider two essential purposes of bond: the defendant's return to court to answer the charges, and the community's safety,” Ogg said. “And it's this second public interest that is being failed in Houston under the current bail system.”

There followed a series of prosecutors, victim advocates, and victims' family members testifying in support of the bill, incuding Theresa Seck, whose brother was killed in September 2020.

“Once I got that call that a person was arrested, I was happy and relieved," Seck said. "But those feelings were quickly replaced with anger and disbelief when I was informed that this person was out on bond and wearing an ankle monitor at the time that he murdered my brother.”

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg

But opponents of the bill homed in on its lack of protections for indigent defendants. One of those opponents, Laquita Garcia of the Texas Organizing Project, detailed her own experiences in the criminal justice system.

“I sat in jail for almost a year without being found guilty of a crime and with a bond that I could not afford to pay,” Garcia said, "only ultimately to end up with a court-appointed attorney who I only saw twice during that year, the second time being the day I went before the judge, to only be found not guilty of the crime that I had already spent a year in jail on, the whole time knowing that I wasn't guilty. And I don't believe that that is true justice."

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, who chairs the committee and wrote SB 21, set the tone for the hearing by acknowledging that the bill as written did not address concerns about the rights of indigent defendants who could not afford cash bail.

Huffman implied she was open to adding such protections.

"I know about the O'Donnell case and the Russell case," Huffman said, referring respectively to the lawsuits against Harris County over misdemeanor and felony bail practices. “I know there are federal court cases out there that have attempted to intercede, and there were lawsuits. I get all that, and I'm going to work around that.”

Former Harris County Criminal Court-at-Law Judge Michael Fields

Michael Fields, a former Republican criminal court-at-law judge from Harris County, was one of the original defendants in the O’Donnell lawsuit over the county's misdemeanor bail practices. But Fields ultimately sided with the plaintiffs in the case.

Most arguments against bail reform deal with restricting personal recognizance bonds. But Fields argued that cracking down on so-called PR bonds would just make it harder for poor defendants to bond out on their own, and do nothing to increase public safety.

As evidence, Fields pointed to many of the very cases being brought up in Thursday’s hearing, in which the committee was told 72 people accused of murder had been out on bond.

But of those, 93% were out on surety bond — a cash loan from a bail bondsman.

“Do you know what those bail bondsmen did to protect the lives of these people's loved ones?” Fields said. “Nothing.”

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Andrew Schneider

Andrew Schneider

Politics and Government Reporter

Andrew heads Houston Public Media’s coverage of national, state, and local elections. He also reports on major policy issues before the Texas Legislature and county and city governments across Greater Houston. Before taking up his current post, Andrew spent five years as Houston Public Media’s business reporter, covering the oil...

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