Monday, April 08, 2019

Texas bail-reform legislation not ready for prime time

Competing bail-reform bills are up in the Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today, but in this writer's view, none of them is ready for prime time.

For reasons articulated before, the Texas Judicial Council bill carried by Murr/Whitmire (HB 1323) fails to address the main constitutional flaws identified in Texas' system by federal litigation.

The Governor's bill, carried by Rep. Kyle Kacal and backed by the bail-bond industry (HB 2020), is even worse. It creates a new layer of government - the Bail Advisory Program - and the committee substitute stocks it with politicians instead of issue-area experts. The program's mandate? To reinvent the wheel, creating a new validated-risk-assessment tool, even though the Office of Court Administration already has one that's available free for counties to use.

Neither bill addresses the failure of counties to provide defendants counsel when magistrates set bail, which is the principle issue at stake in all three federal litigation sites. And neither addresses the fundamental constitutional question of incarcerating people because they can't afford to pay money bail. So the matter won't be resolved no matter which bill passes.

In that light, Grits has come to believe legislating this topic is premature. In two years, once the 5th Circuit has clarified the constitutional baseline, it will be possible to create legislative rules that implement it. But if legislators aren't going to address the core subjects at issue in the federal litigation, Grits fails to see the point of passing anything now.

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