Texas might copy Travis bond sys­tem

County’s point-based sys­tem that cal­cu­lates flight risk in­spires bills.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Ryan Au­tullo rautullo@states­man.com

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.

JAY JAN­NER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2013

De­fen­dants wait to have their bail set. New bills adopt a risk as­sess­ment tool that pri­or­i­tizes crim­i­nal his­to­ries over fi­nan­cial where­withal.

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