Two committees in the Texas Legislature this weekend passed identical versions of a bill that would make it harder for some people to bond out of jail pretrial.
House Bill 2 and Senate Bill 6 would bar a defendant from being released on a personal recognizance bond if charged with committing a violent or sexual crime, or if charged with committing a crime while already out on bond.
“SB 6 is legislation which is really a direct response to the increase in violent and habitual offenders being released on personal bonds along with low-cash bonds,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, chair of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee and the author of SB 6, said at the Senate hearing. “We have failed our communities, we have failed our citizens, definitely we have failed the victims, and it’s time to do something about it.”
Gov. Greg Abbott named bail reform an emergency item during his 2021 State of the State address, citing a rise in violent crime — particularly those allegedly committed by individuals who were already out on bond.
He cited in particular the case of State Trooper Damon Allen, who was killed in 2017 by a man out on bail for a felony offense. At the governor's request, the main House bail reform bill during the regular session bore the name "the Damon Allen Act." The same holds for both the House and Senate bail reform bills in the special session.
A final version of a bail reform bill had passed the Senate during the regular legislative session that ended on May 31, and was up for consideration in the House when Democratic lawmakers walked out to break quorom and avoid a vote on the omnibus election bill. The deadline for voting on both the election bill and the bail reform bill passed that night, and both bills died.
Both bail bills in this special session would effectively short circuit any effort by Harris County to reform its felony cash bail system. The county is currently involved in a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of felony cash bail on the grounds that it discriminates against indigent defendants.
The county lost a similar suit over its misdemeanor cash bail system in 2017. Researchers found that it did not lead to an uptick in crime.
House Democrats and civil rights advocates argue that HB 2 and SB 6 would continue such discrimination, forcing poor defendants to remain in jail for weeks or months awaiting their trial, while allowing comparatively wealthy defendants to bond out regardless of the seriousness of the charges against them.
“What does the ability to post a cash bond, how does that make a community safer?” state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, who leads the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus, asked during the House hearing. “The bill pushes more people into the cash bail system by precluding their ability to have a personal bond in a laundry list of situations.”
Huffman stressed that she and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Junction, specifically wrote the bills with the intention of complying with the federal consent decree governing Harris County’s misdemeanor bail reform. The two bills include language that would allow a defendant who cannot afford cash bail to swear an affidavit to that effect.
Critics argue that such language would require a defendant to provide detailed information on their financial status that most are unlikely to have readily in mind or at hand. Advocates for the disabled in particular argue that such language would discriminate against defendants with cognitive or developmental disabilities.
Both the House and Senate bills also include language that would limit the operations of charitable bail organizations. Critics argue this too would discriminate against poor defendants, whom such organizations are designed to help, while benefiting the bail bond industry.