Criminal Justice

Lawmakers want to change Texas constitution to tighten bail restrictions

This November, Texas voters could decide whether judges can deny bail for certain violent and sexual offenders.


Located near Minute Maid Park, North Main Bail Bond is one of many locations of its kind in Downtown Houston. Harris County has been the center of several bail disputes over the years.

Texas lawmakers are pushing for an amendment to the state’s constitution that would make it harder for some people to be released on bail.

State senators Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen, and Joan Huffman, R-Houston, are co-authors of Senate Joint Resolution 44, which if passed would ask voters to approve an amendment allowing judges to deny bail for people charged with violent and sexual offenses as well as human trafficking.

It would also require a judge to impose the “least restrictive conditions” of bail while still protecting the public and ensuring a defendant shows up in court.

The Senate Committee on Criminal Justice heard public comment on the resolution Tuesday. Huffman said Texas lacks options for keeping habitual offenders in jail.

“It has become starkly clear that our local officials making bail determinations day in and day out need this tool to protect the people of Texas from future harm,” Huffman said.

If the resolution passes in both the House and Senate, it could appear on the ballot for Texas voters as early as the upcoming election on Nov. 7.

The proposed change comes amid a growing dispute over bail practices in Texas and across the country in recent years. Last legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 6, which placed restrictions on how judges set bail.

Typically, judges can review a person's charges and criminal history and determine whether a defendant must pay cash or be released without payment on what's known as a personal recognizance bond, or "PR bond."

That changed after SB 6. Now, judges are required to set a cash bail amount for violent offenses.

The use of cash bail has come under fire from advocates for the accused who say it unfairly impacts people who can't afford to pay to get out of jail pretrial, when a person is still legally presumed innocent.

Nowhere in Texas has the debate over bail practices been more prominent than in Harris County. In 2016, the county was part of a class-action lawsuit over its use of cash bail for misdemeanor offenses. Plaintiffs in the case successfully argued that the county discriminated against people who could not afford to pay bail, and a federal judge found the practice unconstitutional.

The county's court-mandated reforms did not apply to felonies, but a similar lawsuit targeting the county's use of cash bail for felony offenses is ongoing.

Lawmakers and law enforcement officials say their concern is that bail guidelines for felony offenders aren’t strict enough, and have sought for ways to deny bail altogether in some cases. Huffman and others also sponsored House Joint Resolution 4 in 2021, which made a similar proposal to SJR 44 but ultimately failed to pass before the end of the session.

Crime in Harris County was a repeated topic of discussion throughout Tuesday’s hearing — Huffman is a Houston Republican and committee Chair Sen. John Whitmire is a Democrat running for mayor of Houston.

Andrew Wright, a lieutenant with the Houston Police Department, said the faster this proposed bail reform is passed, the better it would be for law enforcement and the public.

“I think in Houston, we don’t have more criminals, we have the same criminals let out time and time again for us to catch, and it is not a good situation,” Wright said.

However, members of civil rights groups from across the state said Tuesday the proposed amendment is too broad and would unfairly impact those who are already disproportionately caught up in the criminal justice system — people from poor communities and communities of color.

“This is happening without the other side of the coin,” said Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition. “Without actual remedy or relief for people who are poor on the other side of this system, who are still being jailed improperly, who are still being en masse, at immense harm to them, their families, and their communities, as well as at immense cost to the state.”

In addition to public safety, the bill’s supporters say they want to make sure people don't miss their day in court.

But the legislation fails to consider those who miss court for reasons outside of their control, said Lauren Rosales with The Bail Project.

“Most missed court appearances are unintentional,” Rosales said. “They are not attempts to willfully flee or evade prosecution. Like missed medical appointments, they occur due to sudden illness, inescapable work obligations, travel challenges, child care responsibilities and confusion around details like the location or time.”

Rosales added unnecessary time spent in pretrial detention can worsen conditions in an arrestee’s everyday life, leading to further economic instability and deteriorating physical and behavioral health.

“This amendment would mean that more Texans would remain locked in jail away for weeks, months or years without having been convicted of a crime,” Rosales said.

Copyright 2023 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.
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