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Senate Bill 6 Signed Into Law, Cash-Bail Opponents Question Its Impact On Public Safety

A bail bonds office in Houston, near Minute Maid Park.
Roy Luck
A bail bonds office in Houston, near Minute Maid Park.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Monday signed the Damon Allen Act into law in Houston. The law, also known as Senate Bill 6, will make it more difficult for people to be released from jail ahead of their trials.

It does this by eliminating cashless bonds for a whole host of crimes, and makes the process of bailing people out more cumbersome for charitable organizations.

“You have revolving door releases of dangerous criminals back out onto the streets, who then go commit even more crimes,” Abbott said at the signing.

The governor highlighted the legislation as a priority in the first legislative session, where it failed to pass and again in the first special session. Abbott got his victory at the end of August.

Critics of the bill often point to the fact that the accused violent criminals can still get out, they just have to pay. The namesake of the bill, State Trooper Damon Allen, was tragically killed in a 2017 traffic stop by a man out on a cash bond of $15,000.

So on its face, SB6 likely would not have prevented his death. Proponents like the governor say Allen’s killer was let out because the judge didn’t have his criminal record to refer to. The judge would under the new system.

“The objects of the reform, some are laudable,” said Michael Young, Bexar County Public Defender.

The bill provides more training for magistrate judges. In rural Texas, many Justices of the Peace setting bail aren’t licensed attorneys. It collects data and provides criminal histories of the accused to judges before they make bail determinations.

Crime across the state has been up, and the bill targets people accused of violent offenses. But the question of whether the public is any safer is an open one. Those arrested aren’t necessarily guilty and one charitable bail fund reports that the case is dismissed in nearly 1 in 3 of the people they bail out.

Young said the bill provisions pander to for-profit bail bondsmen.

“[Limiting charitable bail funds] has nothing to do with public safety and everything to do with driving more poor people to the bail companies and forcing them to pay for their freedom,” Young said.

Posting bail bonds is a billion dollar industry in Texas. Threatened by a national shift away from bail, more and more states are looking at abolishing cash-bail systems. Reuters reported insurers have increased lobbying nationwide ten times, spending $17 million this year.

Charitable organizations maintain the system creates two tiers for justice.

“We operate under a two tier system, one where you're rich and you have money to post bail regardless of the crime and obtain adequate defense. If you're poor for the same exact crime, you're going to sit in jail until your court date,” said Loquita Garcia of the Texas Organizing Project.

TOP has partnered with The Bail Project to bail out 655 Texans at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. In Bexar County charitable organizations have put in close to a million dollars, according to the Public Defender’s office. Eighty percent of people arrested in the county are so poor they qualify for indigent defense.

They argue this bill will lead to a host of systemic issues making justice harder to attain.

“It's going to force innocent people to plead guilty, exacerbate racial disparities, will expose counties to costly litigation and actually harm public safety because it is going to result in more people remaining in jail pre-trial before they've been convicted of a crime.” Twyla Carter, National Director of Policy at California-based The Bail Project.

Both the Dallas Countyand Harris County bail systems were found unconstitutional by federal courts because the poor were held while those of means could get out for identical crimes. This legislation may make those jailers’ jobs more difficult.

“It will definitely continue to perpetuate mass incarceration of black and brown bodies. It would continue to perpetuate mass incarceration of those who are living in poverty,” said Garcia.

Concern about overcrowded and understaffed jails was voiced throughout the legislative debate around the bill. Dallas County is still facing a federal court case around its jail, and there was a failed state court lawsuit against the Sheriff from guards due to the staffing. Harris county pleaded with a federal judge over its population resulting from the pandemic. And other jails like Hidalgo have had to ship inmates to neighboring counties.

Ultimately, some of the most punitive measures towards charitable bond programs were defeated in previous versions of the bill. Now those programs are being subjected to increased scrutiny. They are required to submit data to county sheriffs on who they are bailing out, what the crime was, and if the person showed up for court, among other things. The sheriffs have wide latitude in whether the organizations can operate in each county and are empowered to issue warnings and year-long suspensions.

“I believe in Texas there are 238 jails, and 238 different sheriffs. Depending on where bail activity is happening, you could potentially have 238 different processes for even what the reporting looks like,” said Carter.

The charitable organizations feel targeted by Republican lawmakers. And there are reasons to believe that. The reporting requirements only apply to charitable bail funds, not the for-profit bail system that is responsible for most cash-bonds in the state. And Carter said the provision in the law that mandates sheriffs turn over data provided by charitable bond funds be turned over to the legislature is proof this is just the beginning.

“Senator (Joan) Huffmann made it clear she’s already tried to attack us and limit us and we are able to defeat that, but she made it clear that the data collection piece is her entryway into trying to do more.” said Carter, stating they are preparing to do it all over again in two years at the next legislature.

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org