Texas Legislature passes bail reform

Days before the bill passed, two men on felony bond release were charged with the murder of police detective Everett Briscoe.

Updated: September 6, 2021 - 9:24pm

The Texas Legislature has passed a second priority legislative item of Gov. Greg Abbott’s – bail reform, which the governor says he will sign into law.

Both the House and Senate passed SB6 last week.

Filed by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, bail reform was proposed in response to a wave of crime sweeping through Texas, resulting in part, she argues, from several judges continuing to release repeat offenders into the community who commit more crimes.

"As a former prosecutor and criminal district court judge, it is absolutely appalling to see the release of habitual and violent offenders on small, and sometimes multiple, bonds," Huffman said when she announced bail reform proposals earlier this year.

After the bill’s passage, she said the bill was a “game-changer.”

"We have all seen the horrible consequences of current bail practices throughout Texas,” she said, which she hopes will be mitigated after the law goes into effect. She said she plans to monitor the bill’s implementation “to ensure that the process is working as intended and is efficient for the judicial system.”

Her hometown of Houston, the state’s largest city, has been particularly hit hard by increased crime with the homicide rate increasing by 91% since 2019.

Just days before the bill passed, two men, both out on felony bond release, were arrested and charged with the murder of New Orleans police detective Everett Briscoe. Briscoe and another patron eating outside at The Grotto restaurant in a heavily trafficked area in downtown Houston died from gunshot wounds.

“The bail system in Harris County is a disaster and making our citizens unsafe," Doug Griffith, president of the Houston Police Officers Union, said in a statement with Hoffman when she announced reform measures.

Houston Crime Stoppers, which helped get HB6 passed, said over 5,000 people signed a petition in support of the bill. The group helped law enforcement locate and arrest 31 suspects and solve 64 cases this summer, it reports.

The House passed HB6 by a vote of 85-40 with 22 absent. The Senate passed the bill earlier this month and approved House changes on Tuesday by a vote of 26-5.

The key reform measure limits judges from releasing defendants on personal recognizance bonds who are charged with committing felonies, including multiple violent crimes. It also creates a new public database that provides details about each defendant’s case and bail conditions, as well as identifying the judge or magistrate who set the bail. The Public Safety Report System will be developed by the Office of Court Administration and be made available to all counties free of charge.

The goal is to increase transparency and accountability from judges, Huffman said, enabling the public to access information about who is being released from jail and by which judges.

The new law also requires any state official setting bail to complete a form certifying that all relevant factors were considered when assessing the defendant’s risk to the community. The form must be electronically signed by the bail-setter and be made publicly available. It’s the first statewide data collection for a bail system in Texas.

The new law also requires charitable bail organizations to report each defendant they bond out of jail, many of which are not located in Texas. Many charitable bail donations “come from out-of-state individuals who have no stake in our state or in our communities,” Huffman said.

The bill garnered bipartisan support, “much to the dismay of a small number of detractors that have continuously mischaracterized the bill to fit a misguided narrative,” Huffman said, adding that the law, once implemented, “will help Texans from all walks of life be more safe in their communities moving forward."

Last month, the ACLU of Texas sent a letter to all 254 counties in Texas informing them that following the law “might land them in court.” SB6 “conflict[s] with our constitutional right to pretrial liberty and the presumption of innocence,” it said in a statement.

Gov. Greg Abbott said the legislation will “reform our broken bail system in Texas and keep our communities safe. Public safety is at risk because of our current bail system that recklessly allows dangerous criminals back onto our streets, which is why I made bail reform an emergency item during the 87th Legislative Session.”

The law is named after State Trooper Damon Allen, who was murdered in 2017 after a local magistrate released a violent criminal into the community.

Allen’s “killer was out on a $15,000 bond despite having previously been convicted of a charge arising from assaulting a public servant, and having been arrested on charges of evading arrest and aggravated assault on a public servant,” Abbott said.

SB6 “will help prevent senseless murders like this in the future,” Abbott said, adding that he “looked forward to signing the Damon Allen Act into law and ensuring that our communities remain safe and secure."

Once signed, the bill goes into effect 90 days after the last day of the special legislative session, which is Sept. 5.