Monday, July 19, 2021

Arguments for Republican bail bill become nonsensical when debating rural jails

I've gotta say, 2021 has been dispiriting on many levels, not the least of which is the partisanship injected into criminal-justice topics turning once-rational individuals into liars and/or idiots.

Over the last week, Just Liberty has been walking around to rural members - almost all Republicans, since the Dems are in Washington, D.C. - discussing the effects of the Governor's bail bill (HB2/SB6/HJR1) on rural jails. (See Grits' testimony to the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee on the topic.)

The basic argument is that 97 mostly rural jails, as of July 1st, were already full and contracting to house prisoners outside their facilities. Boosting pretrial detention in HB1 is aimed at supposed problems in Houston, but the laws they want to change would affect all of Texas, and would harm rural counties the worst. 

Most member offices were happy to receive information about how the bail bill would affect jails in their districts. But we received bizarre pushback from the offices most closely involved with the bill: They insisted that the claim pretrial detention would increase was "overstated."

This is bizarre because we didn't make any claim about the scope of the increase, just that there would be one. But staffers working on the bill pushed back to say magistrates forbidden from giving personal bonds could just set bail at $1 and then pretrial detention wouldn't go up.

Which would be fine, except then what's the point of the bill? My understanding was that there is a class of defendants currently being released on personal bonds that Andy Kahan, the Governor, and Joan Huffman think should be held in jail instead. To the extent that the bill achieves that goal, it does so by increasing the scope of pretrial detention. If the bill authors don't mind those same defendants being released on $1 bond, and don't think pretrial detention will go up, I'm not sure what the hell we're doing here.

IRL, no serious person believes that HB1/SB6 would not increase pretrial detention. That's a political stance, not a legitimate policy take. If Republican legislators admitted these thoughtless policies put rural counties in an economic bind, the conflict between this legislation and rural interests would quickly become apparent. Historically, that's one of the axes on which even popular legislation can die at the Texas capitol.

But as long as rural, Republican legislators value attacking Democrats in Houston more than protecting the economic interests of the counties they represent, rural interests will continue to be sacrificed on the altar of the Governor's political ambitions.

To be clear, this isn't just about bail; it's part of a larger trend. Texas' government at this point is broken, driven by national, partisan agendas with little connection to the eclectic, diverse communities that make up this state. I'm sure ignoring rural interests to "own the Dems" on bail seems super clever to the Governor's political consultants, but that's the core of their base: Taking them for granted and even harming them to score partisan points may work out in the near term., but long term it's not great politics.

CREATIVE ASIDE: For handouts at the capitol, I'd created this little booklet with a general discussion of how the bail bill affects rural jails:

Then I created member-specific flyers discussing specific issues in members' districts, including the little orange booklet as insert. Here's the one for Rep. Shelby Slawson:

These pieces are a bit of an experiment: With many offices still hard to reach due to COVID protocols, staffers working remotely, and the rise of Zoom meetings, it's become harder to reach legislators and their staff. Whereas it used to be easy to drop into an office and talk to whomever you needed to speak to, these days you're likely to be asked to schedule a Zoom meeting in a week or just drop off a fact sheet. But I question whether anybody's reading the mountain of 8.5x11 paper being dropped off in member offices, so I'm testing different forms for legislative communications, using methods more commonly associated with movement zines to communicate with offices.

I figure if I'm bored with the 8.5x11 fact sheet format, staffers would likely be completely fed up with it.

Humorously, the missus was skeptical about distributing my "arts and crafts project" in a professional environment, but members' staff loved them and our lobbyist came back wanting more of the individualized versions. People liked them because they're unique, relevant, and personalized. We may be living in the Digital Age, but there's still some room for more creative papercraft in political comms.


Gary said...

What's the basis for believing more people will be in jail? Rural counties aren't known foe being lenient.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Because: Math. If you eliminate personal bonds and create a list of offenses for which people are ineligible for release, more people will be locked up.

Fewer people released equals more people in jail. By definition.

Gary said...

Grits, rural Texas counties almost never give someone a PR bail so "math" isn't going to make much difference.

I'd like to see bail true bail reform that helps the average non-violent misdemeanor go on PR and certainly this bill isn't it, but your incite is just pandering to your audience since little or nothing will change in rural Texas so far as bond is concerned.

Gary said...

insight not incite

Andrea Black said...

I love the creative fact sheets and how they are getting staffers' attention!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@Gary, 97 mostly rural counties are currently paying to house prisoners outside their jails. Most of those inmates are being held pretrial. Legislation designed to increase pretrial detention doesn't just affect Houston, it affects rural counties, too.

Either the intent of the bill is to increase pretrial detention or not. Saying it won't have that effect because judges will set $1 bail is disingenuous: Either the bill is intended to detain more people IRL or it isn't.

Gary said...

Grits, the rural counties are paying to house prisoners now because the judges won't grant PR or nominal bail nothing will change for rural counties under this bill. Just because you want this bill defeated is no reason for anyone else to believe the propaganda.

Greg Summerlin said...


To alleviate jail crowding, we need to focus on releasing relatively low-risk defendants. If judges would limit their low and PR bonds to non-violent, misdemeanor defendants, most people would support that practice. Instead, some Harris County Criminal District judges have been repeatedly releasing violent, felony defendants on multiple low or PR bonds. In Houston, Channel 26 News has documented this reckless bond practice, and the tragic consequences, in an on-going investigative series entitled, "Breaking Bond" (see link below). I encourage everyone to view those reports. In Harris County, I believe reckless bond practices and the resulting turnstile spinning away at the Harris County Jail are contributing to a surge in violent crime. To date, homicides alone up over 35% this year.

Instead of outright opposing bail reform, Democrats should work with Republicans to create bipartisan legislation restricting low and PR bail bonds for violent, felony defendants (especially those with extensive criminal histories). If Republicans refuse to cooperate, Democrats should write our own narrow, targeted bail reform bill and propose it to Republicans, the media, and the public as a more sensible alternative. We can't just keep ignoring the serious crime problem. Frankly, if Democrats want to win elections next year, we need to take the lead on public safety this year. Crime victims are voters too, and they live in every neighborhood.