State should reform cash-bail system
No doubt, some people who have been arrested on serious charges deserve high bail amounts — and sometimes no bail option at all. But many poor defendants in Texas facing minor charges remain locked up only because they can’t make bail. That costs each county and can force the defendant to lose a job, miss a car payment or drop out of school. It’s a bad system, and at long last the Legislature seems determined to improve it.
As with so many proposed changes in Austin, lawmakers took a run at this issue in 2017 but failed to make progress. Critics say that happened because of intense pressure from the state’s bail-bond industry, which likes the current system because it makes a healthy profit from it.
The momentum this year is unmistakable. The state’s two largest counties — Harris and Dallas — have been successfully sued for outdated bail policies, with federal judges calling their system unconstitutional. Even law-and-order stalwarts like Gov. Greg Abbott and the presiding justices of the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals support reform this time.
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht told the Legislature two years ago that 75 percent of the state’s jail inmates have not been convicted of any crime, with most of them facing nonviolent or relatively minor charges. And of course some of them are actually innocent.
Yet a tradition of hardline policies in Texas basically presume them to be guilty and make it hard for poor defendants to make bail. Sometimes, the cases are ridiculously unjust. Hecht noted a grandmother who was kept in jail for two months on a $150,000 bond after being charged with shoplifting $105 worth of clothes for her grandchildren.
Most county jails spend at least $40 or $50 per day to keep inmates locked up, and sometimes even more. In Harris County, the figure is $87 per day. By comparison, most counties can monitor a defendant on pretrial release for less than a dollar per day.
As much as possible, jails and prison cells need to be reserved for people who are a danger to society and truly belong there. Few inmates have learned to change their ways while warehoused in facilities that can’t do much more than feed them and provide a space for them to sleep.
Judges should be given more flexibility to evaluate inmates and decide which ones can be released for small bail amounts. Others can be freed with the likelihood that they will not attempt to flee because of job or family ties.
State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said doing nothing is not an option. “I don’t believe I’ve seen anything more broken in the criminal-justice system than our current bail-bond process,” Whitmire said. “If we do not fix it, ladies and gentlemen, the federal courts will.”