Harris County Passes Landmark Bail Reform
Earlier this week, the Harris County Commissioners Court passed a consent decree to settle litigation related to misdemeanor bail practices – a landmark win for civil rights policy and for Harris County residents. I applaud the attorneys, judges, plaintiffs, and the Commissioners Court for settling this case, particularly the leadership of Judge Lina Hidalgo, Commissioner Rodney Ellis, and former police officer and Harris County Sheriff Commissioner Adrian Garcia. Representative Armando Walle (D-Houston) and I have been calling for this case to be settled since May 2017 (click here to read more).Under this agreement, we are fixing a misdemeanor justice system that was unfair and unconstitutional by making it fair for everyone, irrespective of their financial means. No one will be locked up simply because their wallet is empty and no one will be set free simply because they can buy their way out of jail.
It will make our community safer by making sure that defendants who show a propensity toward violence are held. Moreover, we won’t be creating a whole new class of criminals by locking up low risk defendants before trial. It will be a system that will hold the guilty accountable for their actions, while making sure the accused don’t have their lives and livelihoods ruined as they try to defend themselves.
It may be a victory for the plaintiffs, but it’s also a victory for everyone else – misdemeanor defendants, victims of crime, and the taxpayers of Harris County. Going forward, Harris County can now be a model for Texas and the nation.
During the 84th Interim (2015-16), then Speaker Joe Straus gave the County Affairs Committee that I have chaired since 2009 and the Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, then chaired by Chair Abel Herrero (D-Robstown), a joint interim charge to review pretrial services and bonding practices throughout the state. The interim report on this charge can be read by clicking here (pages 48-56). Our report made recommendations that Texas use indigencey and risk assessments when setting bail.
Additionally, the last two sessions I have worked hard with Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Representative Andrew Murr (R-Kerrville) to try to advance bail reform at the state level. Regrettably, the bills that we authored have not been able to get to the Governor’s desk. However, our commitment to solving these challenges remains unwavering.
New House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus
In a new effort to fix our bail system and promote other criminal justice reforms, I became a founding member of the House Criminal Justice Reform Caucus on July 19th. Caucuses are groups of legislators dedicated to advancing shared principles. While the most prominent caucuses have traditionally been those built around party or identity, such as the Texas House Republican Caucus or the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Criminal Justice Reform Caucus is designed to be bipartisan and issue based.
The caucus will initially be co-chaired by Representative Joe Moody (D-El Paso), Speaker Pro Tempore of the House of Representatives, and Representative Jeff Leach (R-Plano), who serves as chairman of the House Committee on Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence. Its other founding members are a bipartisan group that reads like a Who’s Who of the Texas Legislature:
Chair Garnet Coleman (D-Houston)
Chair James White (R-Hillister)
Chair Nicole Collier (D-Fort Worth)
Chair Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont)
Rep. Todd Hunter (R-Corpus Christi)
Rep. Matt Krause (R-Fort Worth)
Rep. Ina Minjarez (D-San Antonio)
Rep. Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park)
Rep. Jessica González (D-Dallas)
I am proud of being a founding member of this new caucus and hope that it will help build upon the success I have had the last few sessions passing key criminal justice reform policies including the Sandra Bland Act, and the passage of HB 4468 from last session that fixes mental health transportation language; strengthens the Texas Commission on Jail Standards oversight of privately operated jails; expands the prisoner safety fund to jails with 288 beds or fewer from 96 beds or fewer; allows for in-kind contributions for healthy community collaboratives and lowers the match amount for rural counties from a dollar for a dollar to a quarter for a dollar; requires jailers to be enrolled in basic training within 90 days of receiving their temporary license; and prevents a temporary jailer from becoming a supervisor. Additionally, I supported the efforts that led to the recent Harris County consent decree that will help make Harris County a national model for bail reform.The caucus will serve as a clearinghouse for criminal justice policy proposals of all kinds but will focus on advancing several key issues. Among the topics the caucus will tackle are drug policy, capital punishment, asset forfeiture, bail bonds, prison conditions, mental health services, and rehabilitation and reentry for offenders. The caucus will work with a wide array of stakeholders at all levels and from all facets of the justice system to ensure state laws reflect the values and protect the rights of all Texans, regardless of race, demographics, or socioeconomic status.
Associated Press: Settlement reached in lawsuit over Houston-area bail system
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