The State's judicial and Legislative branches have joined together to proposed the most sweeping reform of the judicial system in decades, essentially eliminating bail in most cases for people who are charged, but not convicted, of criminal offenses, News Radio 1200 WOAI reports.
The proposal to replace the setting of bail with a sophisticated 'Pretrial Risk Assessment' system comes as urban county jails around the state fill up with people who have never been convicted of any crime, but are deprived of their liberty simply because they don't have the money to make sometimes outrageous bail requirements.
As many as 75% of all Texas county jail inmates today are there due to bail, that has tripled in the last 25 years.
Many of these people who are being held, at a cost to the taxpayers of $300 per day per inmate are no flight risk, and are no threat to commit violent crimes while awaiting trial, which are the two things financial bail is supposed to determine.
A Dallas grandmother who had never committed a crime in her life who was arrested last year for shoplifting staying in the Dallas County Jail for four months, because she could not come up with $155,000 bail, which lawyers said was 'more than the value of all of her worldly possessions combined.'
The problem, according to State Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) who heads the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, is that bail is not supposed to be punitive. People who are released on bail are supposed to be presumed innocent. But he says there is no connection whatsoever between how much money you have and whether you are a flight risk or a risk to commit more crimes.
"Today if you are a violent offender, and you can afford a very expensive bond, you can pay it and go right back to your criminal practices," he said.
But a study by the Texas Public Policy Research Institute revealed that as many as one quarter of all Texans cannot afford the minimum bond of $2,000, which requires the person to post $200 if they go through a bail bond company, and that means they are sitting in jail, sometimes for months, while they await a court hearing.
The Institute's Dottie Carmichael says studies have shown that Pretiral Risk Assessment actually does a better job of bail in assuring that the accused will show up for trial, and that they will not commit additional crimes while they are on pre trial release.
"In the financial release system, 12% more potentially dangerous people were being let out of detention," she said.
Whitmire said too many people who are unable to post bond lose their jobs while awaiting a court hearing, which means they and their families become a burden on society thanks to the current system, which he described as 'broken.'
He says an increasingly large number of Texas county jail inmates are there because of traffic tickets. Whitmire says that incarceration has led directly to the spike in suicides in county jails, including that of Sandra Bland, who was arrested following a video taped confrontation with a state trooper and killed herself two days later in the Waller County Jail.
The proposal would mandate that a magistrate make a decision on pretrial risk within 48 hours of a person's arrest, and would still allow a person who is a non violent offender to post a bond immediately to avoid processing.