Bail reform must happen in Bexar County

February 1, 2019

Citing Harris County’s decision to end cash bail for most misdemeanors, Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff and County Court-at-Law Judge John Longoria have called for a meeting of misdemeanor judges next week to consider implementing a similar reform.

Reform here must be sweeping because it is necessary and long overdue. Done right, it will touch thousands and thousands of lives, relieve jail crowding and embody what numerous legal experts from across the political spectrum view as best practice.

Harris County’s proposed plan would eliminate cash bail for about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors. These are people accused of nonviolent crimes, but have found themselves locked up pretrial simply because they cannot afford to pay for a cash bond.

What this means in real terms is they are separated from their families and their jobs, if employed. It means they may plead guilty, regardless of innocence, simply to secure their release. It means two defendants charged with the same crimes, but of different financial means, could very well end up with different outcomes. A wealthy defendant who can make bond is less likely to plead guilty, but a poor defendant, languishing in jail, may plead guilty simply to get home to family and back to work.

Wolff and Longoria, the administrative judge for the criminal misdemeanor courts, allude to these disturbing dynamics in their letter.

“We are concerned that some people may be detained only because of cash bond requirements in Bexar County,” they write. “Some may lose their jobs, get expelled from school, or lose parental rights. We are also concerned that some may plead guilty just to get out of jail.”

Remember, this is pretrial detention. We are talking about defendants who have been accused of nonviolent crimes, but have not been found guilty. We all have a constitutional right to the presumption of innocence. These are the moral underpinnings of bail reform.

What about public safety? No doubt, the bail bond industry will raise this question again and again. But what proponents of the cash bail system conveniently ignore is that cash bail has nothing to do with risk. It is solely connected to a person’s ability to pay for release.

It’s a system that kept Janice Dotson-Stephens, a grandmother with mental illness, in the Bexar County jail on a $300 bond for a misdemeanor criminal trespass charge. She languished for five months until she died in jail this December. And on the other end of the spectrum, it’s a system that allows people accused of violent crimes to be released, if they have the money. This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott brought attention to the killing of Texas State Trooper Damon Allen during a traffic stop in Fairfield. The suspect, Dabrett Black, was released from jail on a $15,500 bond for allegedly assaulting a county deputy.

Harris County’s plan has important exceptions when it comes to public safety. It excludes those arrested for bond violations, repeat drunk driving and family violence.

Bexar County has instituted a number of reforms leading to this moment. It has expanded the Public Defender’s Office to provide representation to all defendants at bail hearings, when bonds are set and pretrial decisions are made. But let’s also acknowledge the obvious. Sticking with cash bail is a losing fight. Harris County spent $9 million fighting a lawsuit over its cash bail practices — to no avail. How would Bexar County’s system fare under a similar lawsuit?

Pretrial release does not change the offense, possible punishment, requirements to make court appearances, or the consequences that come from missing those appointments. It is strictly about ensuring fairness in our legal system. Other reforms are needed, and we will return to those throughout the year. But this is a moment for Bexar County’s court-at-law judges to be bold, and to recognize there are better ways to administer justice than locking up poor people accused of nonviolent crimes simply because they lack the funds for a cash bond.

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