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Let’s fix Bexar’s broken bail bond system

March 13, 2019

Recently, I met with the presiding judges of the Bexar County Misdemeanor Criminal Court At Law. I asked them to rethink how we use misdemeanor bail in Bexar County.

Misdemeanors in Texas are often nonviolent offenses such as trespassing, possession of marijuana, criminal mischief and minor theft. When one of these nonviolent individuals are arrested, he or she appears before a magistrate or judge to set bail, a set dollar amount that a person is required to pay in order to be released from jail or be released on a personal recognizance bond.

I asked the judges to look at the actions taken by Harris County. In Harris County, misdemeanor court judges now release individuals arrested for non-violent offenses on personal recognizance (PR) bonds at no cost to the individual arrested. “Money bail” is not used and poor people who are innocent until proven guilty are not left to languish in jail before they even have their day in court.

Harris County learned this lesson the hard way.

It was sued in federal court precisely because the use of “money bail” left hundreds of non-violent individuals in jail since they did not have the financial resources to pay a bondsman. To date, Harris County has spent more than $10 million trying to defend a broken, unconstitutional system similar to ours.

The Bexar County bail bond industry posted an outdoor sign near the BCSO Jail that stated, “Say No to P.R.!!! Why Take Weekly Drug Tests, Pay Weekly Fees Plus Check-In Person.”

But, as a result of less supervision by the bail bond industry, the rates of re-arrest are higher for individuals released on money bonds rather than PR bonds. The reason why is that individuals released under Bexar County’s PR bond program are required to report to a Pretrial Bond Officer, take drug tests, participate in treatment if clinically indicated, and in some cases be placed on GPS tracking.

The cost to the taxpayer for an individual in the PR bond program is $1.20 per day compared to the cost of jail which is $48 per day. Moreover, the opportunity to remain in the community allows these individuals to work, pay rent, support their family, and pay child support. If a person is in jail; the person cannot do any of this.

A bipartisan bill sponsored by Gov. Greg Abbott and introduced by Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Juncton, would allow the magistrate to utilize a “risk assessment” based on criminal history and community stability so that PR bonds are the norm, not the exception, for nonviolent individuals.

On Feb. 12 the Commissioners Court, with the support of District Attorney Joe Gonzales, passed a resolution that stated that we support the efforts of the Texas Legislature to further reform the state’s pretrial justice system while ensuring the community’s safety, and treating arrested people in a fair and objective manner.

We have an opportunity to stop punishing poor people for being poor; stop gouging taxpayers with criminal justice practices that do not work; and stop sending nonviolent criminals to jail.

We can do all of this voluntarily and proactively or we can get sued like Harris County and be forced to do the right thing, which is what we should have been doing all along. The District Courts and the County Courts have taken a step in the right direction by agreeing to allow the District Attorney and the Public Defender to be present at magistration hearings.

While the Criminal County Court at Law Judges are not adopting the Harris County plan, under the leadership of Judge Tommy Stolhandske, they are working on a plan to assure low level misdemeanor arrestees that they will not be held in jail just because they cannot afford a cash bond.

We need to work together to assure that our criminal justice system is for the benefit of all citizens and that the jail is primarily for arrestees who are a threat to the public.

Nelson Wolff is Bexar County Judge.