County leaders applauded Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s plan to reform the state’s bail system, although it was unclear how much the reforms would improve local practices that drew a civil rights lawsuit.
Speaking in Waco on Tuesday, Abbott introduced a bill that would make it easier for judges and magistrates to review a person’s entire criminal history before setting bond. That process determines how much money people accused of crimes have to come up with before they can get out of jail pending trial.
A deeper review of criminal history might sway judges to set higher bond amounts, which would keep the public safer, Abbott said.
The Damon Allen Act was named after a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who was shot and killed by a man near Fairfield in November 2017. The man accused of shooting Allen had previously been arrested for assaulting a police officer, and was free on bail when Allen was shot.
The judge who set the bond said he had been unaware of the previous arrest, and might have set a higher amount had he known.
Abbott’s proposals include ideas to provide more criminal history information to magistrates and judges at initial bail hearing; to make the safety of law enforcement a consideration of the things that must be considered when setting bail; creating a statewide case management system to provide more information to judges and magistrates; and requiring judges, rather than lower-level magistrates, to set bail for people deemed to be dangerous.
Abbott said the state’s bail system was flawed.
“Texas must ensure that something like this never happens again,” he said.
County leaders said Tuesday they were pleased that Abbott was making bail reform an issue, but added that legislative actions would probably do little to blunt a lawsuit filed against the county over its bail practices.
“We are in complete agreement that bail needs to be reformed,” County Judge Mark Henry said.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas in April sued Galveston County, arguing its bail system discriminated against poor people arrested for nonviolent crimes.
The union called on the county to implement a bail system that gave more consideration to a person’s income and to reduce the time a person has to wait for a bail hearing.
The county is doing some of that already, Henry said.
It’s in the process of hiring more magistrates and more magistrate court clerks and of creating a more streamlined computer system to communicate information to judges, he said.
In that way, what Galveston County is doing is in line with the governor’s proposal, Henry said.
Abbott’s proposals also don’t conflict with what courts have already ruled on in a bail-related lawsuit in Houston, said 56th District Court Judge Lonnie Cox, the county’s administrative judge.
A federal appeals court in February largely upheld Houston’s bail system, which the ACLU also challenged.
“The Fifth Circuit has already said that we should be able to look at their criminal histories,” Cox said. “That’s what the governor is addressing.”
He called the gubernatorial considerations “great,” and said that bail shouldn’t be solely based on income.
“There’s more to it than what the person’s income is,” Cox said.
A spokeswoman for ACLU Texas declined comment Tuesday.
Asked about how his proposal relates to bail lawsuits in Galveston, Houston and Dallas, Abbott said he wasn’t trying to stand in the way of the problems those suits raise.
“Our goal for people who are not dangerous to the community is to not house non-dangerous criminals behind bars, but put them on a pathway toward productivity and contributing back to society,” Abbott said. He said his bill could be used as a platform that lawmakers could use to make other changes to the state’s bail system.
The Texas Legislature’s next session begins Jan. 8.