Saturday, July 10, 2021

Rural counties hurt worst by politicizing bail policy: My testimony against Texas' bail bill

Today your correspondent testified against HB 2 - the Governor's bill attacking judicial discretion in bail setting - in the House Select Constitutional Violations and Remedies Committee, but in 3 minutes couldn't get through it all. So lets post my (mostly prepared) remarks here.


Good morning Mr. Chair, Madame Vice Chair, and esteemed committee members, 

The bill before you as written is bad for Texas.

This is true for many reasons, some of which will or have been raised by others. But I want to talk about how it will boost local jail incarceration rates and put additional upward pressure on property taxes with no particular benefit to public safety, but with many identifiable harms.

As I speak to you today, according to the Commission on Jail Standards, 93 Texas counties are paying to house prisoners outside their county jails to avoid exceeding state overcrowding standards. Nearly all of these are rural and border counties.

A few years ago, the big overcrowding problems were happening in the large counties, and many of you will remember when Harris County was farming out inmates in Louisiana and several of its neighboring counties. Now, the big counties mostly have those problems under control and it’s rural counties feeling the squeeze. And after 2019, they must face these challenges with new limits on property tax revenue.

This legislation will harm counties by increasing pretrial incarceration in cases where judges previously recommended release. For those 93 counties and maybe even more in the wake of this legislation, it will mean more prisoners housed outside the jail for which counties must pay per-diem contract rates.

It’s not some scary thing that judges have discretion to release defendants on bail. They had it when crime was going up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but also when it was going down for 30 years beginning in the ‘90s. That it’s ticked back upward - nationally, it should be emphasized, not just in Houston where they’ve had judicially-mandated bail reform - is no reason to change such a fundamental part of the justice system on the fly.

This bill is completely different from the bills we saw in the regular session. It doesn’t feel like there’s a plan so much as a political agenda, and that never leads to good outcomes in the justice system.

While I’m here I wanted to refer this committee, if you haven’t read it yet, to the Houston Chronicle coverage of the bail system there which you’ve already heard about today. Despite the hair-on-fire quotes from Andy Kahan and the police unions, if you look at the numbers, for a city as large and diverse and Houston, they were really rather modest.

So much of this bill is about limiting personal bonds, but when the Chronicle looked at data since 2013, only 2 people out on personal bonds  had been accused of  violent crimes. 

About 376,000 people were released on bond over this period. 79 went on to kill someone while out on multiple bonds, or 0.02 percent; only 0.01 percent, or, 38 alleged killers, had received multiple felony bonds over the eight years the Chronicle looked at, or an average of just less than 5 per year. In a city of 2.3 million, with a justice system as vast as Houston’s, these are tiny numbers.

The Chronicle and Andy Kahan made much of recent increases in the murder rate, but individual anecdotes aside, statistically those were much larger increases driven mostly by murderers who WEREN’T out on bond.

The Chronicle found that 7 percent of murders during the period they studied involved people out on bail. But that means the overwhelming majority, 93 percent, were committed by people who hadn’t been released on bail. 

If you do this, it’s not going to do squat to reduce Houston’s murder problem and none of you should pretend it will. Lubbock and Fort Worth saw bigger murder spikes, percentage-wise, and they haven’t undergone bail reform at all. This an effort to politicize the justice system and I believe y’all should oppose it.

Thank you for your time.


Anonymous said...

Nice job. Thank you.

JImmy Powers said...

This is about the horrible Democrat leadership in Harris county. Harris county judges should lose their qualified immunity.

Joel R. Lambright said...

@Jimmy: I would agree that judges should be less able to escape malfeasance; honest jurists should have little to worry about there. The disagreement that I have with your comment involves the type of immunity judges currently enjoy. Judges do not have qualified immunity--they have absolute immunity, a bar even higher than its qualified counterpart, and so do prosecutors. Much is made of the legal protection conferred to police, but the protection afforded to the decision-makers who are not part of the conflict exceed even that we perceive as already abused by those entrusted to guard our liberty on the street.

Greg Summerlin said...

I’m in favor of low and PR bonds for non-violent, misdemeanor defendants. To reduce crowding in the county jail, I even support low or PR bonds for non-violent defendants charged with a State Jail Felony (SJF), as most SJF cases are for drug possession (not manufacture or distribution). To address the underlying addiction issues, most SJF defendants actually need a good substance abuse treatment program, not more jail time.

In Harris County, the violent crime rate is soaring, with homicides alone up over 35%. As far as violent felony defendants, especially those who re-offend while out on bond and those with extensive criminal histories, the Criminal District Judges have a lot of discretion when setting bail amounts and COULD, under existing law, set higher bonds. Instead, some (Democratic) judges have been repeatedly releasing these violent, felony defendants on low or PR bonds and our local communities are paying the price. The actions of these judges is driving the call for bail bond reform.

As Democrats, we need to take the lead on public safety. If we don’t, the Republicans will. Remember, crime victims are voters, too, and they are in every neighborhood.

For more, please read my posts on Thanks.