Texas might copy Travis bond system
County’s point-based system that calculates flight risk inspires bills.
State lawmakers praised the fairness shown by Travis County courts in vetting defendants for quick jail release and encouraged the rest of the state to adopt a similar tool to regulate jail population and save taxpayers millions.
Bills introduced Thursday by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, and state Rep. Andrew Murr, R-Kerrville, aim to keep indigent people out of jail for minor crimes by increasing access to personal recognizance bonds, which come at no cost to a defendant.
To do that, they said, the state should scrap financial-based bond systems, used by most of the state, that indirectly discriminate against indigent defendants
who can’t come up with the money needed to ensure their release.
Whitmire and Murr want to adopt a validated risk assessment tool, used by Travis County and four other Texas counties, that prioritizes a defendant’s criminal history over their financial wherewithal.
“This will enhance public safety,” Whitmire said, adding he’s “guardedly optimistic” the measures — Senate Bill 1338, Senate Joint Resolution 50, House Bill 3011 and House Joint Resolution 98 — will advance to be heard by the full Legislature.
He acknowledged there will be critics but warned, “The push-backers will lose because right is on our side.”
A personal bond offers jail release in exchange for a defendant agreeing to make all court appearances. If the agreement is broken, the defendant will be ordered to post bail.
Travis County’s pretrial services relies on a pointbased system to calculate a defendant’s flight risk and likelihood of committing another crime while out on bail. That tool, from the Ohio Risk Assessment System, has many advantages over the financial-based system used by others, including Tarrant County, according to a study introduced by the Texas Judicial Council and Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute.
According to the research, it cost Travis County $2,134 per defendant to release defendants from jail and monitor them compared with the $3,038-per-defendant cost footed by Tarrant County. Additionally, the study shows the chance “potentially dangerous people” are released is greater in Tarrant.
Of the state’s 254 counties, only 25 counties use a risk-assessment tool. Of the 25, all but five use a tool that hasn’t been validated by research showing it truly predicts risk. The five counties with a validated tool are Bexar, Ector, El Paso, Midland and Travis. Harris County is expected to join them by the end of the year.
Murr, once a county judge in Kimble County, predicted that modifying the state’s bond system would save taxpayers millions. In November, the American-Statesman reported a potential annual savings of $190 million after a $60 million to $70 million cost for pretrial supervision.
Those figures come from data reviewed by Texas Judicial Council that says up to a quarter of the 41,000 Texas jail inmates awaiting trials pose little threat to the public.
In the past 25 years, the pretrial population in Texas jails has risen from just over 32 percent of the jail population to almost 75 percent of the jail population, according to a study by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.
Resistance is likely to come from lawmakers representing rural counties who might be unable or unwillingly to pay for increased pretrial supervision services.
The jail commission’s proposal acknowledges some small counties “might not realize enough reduced jail population to fully cover the cost of the supervision program.”
Illustrating the need for reform, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht spoke sympathetically Thursday about a Dallas woman who was held on $150,000 bond for shoplifting $105 worth of goods. Hecht said the bond was unreasonable, as the woman posed little flight risk.
“Was it worth it? No,” Hecht said. “Liberty and common sense demand reform.”
Hecht in his Feb. 1 State of the Judiciary address also called for bail reform.
Echoing Hecht’s endorsement was Texas Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller, who noted blacks often are more adversely affected than whites in bond programs used in most of the state. Those programs essentially assign a bond figure for specific crimes, leaving little room to consider such factors as a defendant losing employment by being locked up for three or four days on a minor charge.
Defendants charged in a county with a financial-based system serve eight more days in detention, on average, than in the alternative system, according to Dottie Carmichael of Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute.
State Rep. Andrew Murr (left), R-Kerrville, and state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, introduced bills Thursday.
Defendants wait to have their bail set. New bills adopt a risk assessment tool that prioritizes criminal histories over financial wherewithal.