HOUSTON (CN) — Named after a Texas state trooper shot dead during a traffic stop, Governor Greg Abbott signed a bill Monday to block those accused of violent crimes from being released from jail without paying bail. Opponents say it discriminates against poor people.
Abbott named bail reform as a priority for the Texas Legislature this year and signed the Damon Allen Act at an event Monday in Houston where Allen’s widow, Kasey Allen, said it will help keep violent criminals like the one who killed him on Thanksgiving Day 2017 off the streets.
“Damon was killed by a violent repeat offender who was stopped for speeding that day and he just didn’t want his plans interrupted by being arrested,” Kasey Allen said.
According to Abbott, Allen’s accused killer, Dabrett Black, who is awaiting a capital murder trial, had been released on a $15,500 bail by a magistrate judge who did not have access to Black’s criminal history.
The new law prohibits the release on a personal bond, which requires no cash payment, of anyone charged with a violent crime, or anyone who while out on bail on violent crime charges, is charged with any felony, or misdemeanor assault, deadly conduct, terrorist threat, or gun charges.
It would not have kept Black behind bars before he allegedly murdered Allen because he had posted bail.
The bill garnered bipartisan support in the Texas Senate where it passed 27-2. But it passed largely along party lines in the Texas House, with only a couple Democratic members in favor.
There are widely supported facets of the legislation.
It tasks the Texas Office of Court Administration, in consultation with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, with developing training courses on setting bail for magistrate judges.
To ensure magistrates, who set bail at probable cause hearings, have adequate information about the defendants who appear before them, the bill also calls for the Office of Court Administration to create a “public safety report system,” in which defendants’ personal information, criminal history and pending charges will be listed.
The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association’s legislative counsel Allen Place said it too supports the new training requirements for magistrates, but it has concerns about the bill’s effect on poor working Texans and that it will make already overcrowded county jails more crowded.
“Individuals without cash money to make bail but who are otherwise good candidates for a personal bond will remain in jail awaiting their court date,” Place said in an email.
He said another concern is the bill provides no funding for the magistrate training and criminal history database.
Abbott signed the bill Monday at the Texas Pastor Council’s Safer Houston Summit.
Citing statistics from the Houston Police Department, Abbott said the city’s murder rate is up 30% this year compared to 2020.
The Republican governor laid the blame on the felony court judges in Harris County, which includes Houston, all of whom are Democrats.
“There’s been a revolving jailhouse door because of lax bail policies and here in Harris County more so than any other place I’ve seen in the state of Texas,” Abbott said.
“You’re facing a crisis that’s a consequence of having elected a lot of judges in Harris County who ran as Democrat socialists,” he added. “These Democrat socialist judges, they believe in letting people out of jail as opposed to keeping them in jail. That’s why you have more criminals, convicted criminals, who are back out on the street endangering public safety.”
But critics say the bill is meant to benefit the cash bail industry, does nothing to make Texans safer and is discriminatory against poor arrestees, a disproportionate number of whom are Hispanic and Black.
According to the ACLU of Texas, more than 60% of people in Texas jails have not been convicted of a crime and are awaiting resolution of their cases behind bars because they cannot afford bail.
The Bail Project is a California nonprofit that provides bail assistance and advocates for an end to cash bail. It paid the bail of a Black Houston man named Hervis Rogers after he was arrested in July and charged with two felony counts of voter fraud by the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.
Rogers, 62, had voted in the March 2020 Democrat primary after waiting six hours to cast his ballot. As the last one in line to vote at Texas Southern University in Houston, he was interviewed at the polls by several media outlets.
He reportedly did not know he was ineligible at the time, and when he voted in the November 2018 elections, because he was on parole.
The Bail Project condemned Abbott’s signing of the legislation Monday.
“Senate Bill 6 fails to advance public safety,” the group said in a statement. “Instead, it expands cash bail to the benefit of the bail bond industry while ensuring that more people will be held in jail before being convicted of a crime because of poverty.”
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