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Jails across Texas strain with prisoners but Gov. Abbott wants to see even more people behind bars

Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks at the annual National Rifle Association (NRA) convention in Dallas, Texas, U.S., May 4, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Lucas Jackson
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott

Gov. Greg Abbott used the State of the State address Thursday to speak about the tragic death of Harris County Deputy Constable Omar Ursin.

But not by name. Ursin was shot and killed. The men arrested for the crime were already out on bail for other murders. The governor was adamant that the state had to do more to keep criminals locked up.

If that sounds familiar — allusions to a fallen law enforcement officer slain by a man out on bail with the promise of a legislative fix — that’s because he made a near identical guarantee with the passage of Senate Bill 6 two years ago. The bill restricted who could be allowed out on personal recognizance (cash-free) bonds.

“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 of SB 6.

On Thursday, he said: “But this session we must shut and lock that revolving door by passing laws that keep dangerous criminals behind bars and holding accountable the judges who let them out.”

The statement itself is in part an admission that SB 6 didn’t do anything to prevent the death of the man it was named after: slain State Trooper Damon Allen. It didn’t stop people from being let out on cash bail.

It merely said people accused of violent crime or convicted of one in the past couldn't be released without paying some amount of money. It also subjected charitable bond programs to increased scrutiny.

Advocates for bail-reform criticized it for being more about bolstering bail-bondsmen bank accounts than public safety.

Now, in addition to threatening judges who reduce bails, Abbott again promised legislative fixes by making it more difficult for everyone arrested and charged from being released from jail before their trial.

Advocates said this not only violated the presumption of innocence but would tax a system in crisis.

Texas’ 242 county jails are already increasingly overcrowded, with more than 70,000 inmates. According to state data, there is a corresponding rise in jail deaths, suicides, use of force incidents and assaults.

Rises in assaults, deaths, and suicides plague the state's 242 jails as the state saw a 9% rise in population numbers. Mentally ill inmates seen by regulators as in 'dire' situation.

The governor’s continued rhetoric about bail reform while jails continue to struggle has public safety advocates wondering what this is really about.

“I think this is all about politics. It's not about public safety. If we wanted to really promote public safety, we would be identifying low risk people, getting them out of the jail without forcing them to raise money for bond,” said Michele Deitch, director of the Prison and Jail Innovation Lab at the University of Texas’ LBJ School of Public Affairs.

While SB 6 couldn’t prevent the violence perpetrated against Allen and Ursin, many have pointed out that the rising tide of jail populations have come after the passage of the bill.

Now, nearly two out of three inmates across the state are pre-trial — or not convicted of a crime — while also being exposed to historic levels of violence inside.

Jailers in Harris County and state regulators have said historic backlogs in courts have jammed jails with those waiting for trial.

“It's absolutely true that there is still a backlog of cases because of the courts not being able to hold hearings and trials during the pandemic,” Deitch said. “So that is absolutely a factor. But SB 6 has contributed to the crowding in very substantial ways as well.”

Now, as the governor sets out to again fix the problem he said he fixed last session, he made no plan public to help jails address their issues. Abbott’s office did not respond to TPR's request for comment.

"It's dangerously high levels of crowding [in jails]," Deitch explained. "We need to understand that and learn from our history that we can't keep locking up people at this rate."

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Paul Flahive can be reached at Paul@tpr.org