Texas Voters Have Voiced Support of Pretrial Reform and the Legislature Should Listen
During the upcoming 86th legislative session, the Texas Legislature will have the opportunity to create a pretrial justice system that maximizes both public safety and court appearance rates, while advancing equal justice for all Texans regardless of income. The key to accomplishing these goals is for lawmakers to require that judges make decisions about pretrial release based on the unique needs of each individual, only detaining people who pose a true risk to public safety or risk of flight. In contrast, pretrial release in our current system usually hinges on whether a person can afford the money bond set in their case — or can afford at least 10% of it to pay a bail bondsman.
Despite evidence and growing consensus that our current system is deeply flawed, the bail bond industry has been an obstacle to reforms, given its dependence on the current system for continued profit. The bail bond industry will lobby tirelessly to stymie reforms that move Texas forward, and has already contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Texas legislators over the years in an attempt to influence them.
However, most Texans do not agree with special interest groups like the bail bond industry. A recent poll that Texas Appleseed released in partnership with the national Pretrial Justice Institute and Right on Crime demonstrates that Texas voters overwhelmingly support a pretrial justice system in which decisions are based on risk, not income. More than 7 in 10 Texas voters support judges assessing public safety risk when determining pretrial release. Eight in 10 Texas voters prefer issuing citations to people accused of low-level, nonviolent offenses, as opposed to arresting them and holding them in jail before they’ve been convicted.
When it comes to pretrial justice, what Texas voters support aligns with best practices. In keeping with its reputation as a national leader in criminal justice reform, the Texas Legislature can create the pretrial justice system that voters support — one that both treats people fairly and improves public safety. In doing so, the legislature should focus on the following key reforms:
- Reduce jail bookings for low-level offenses. Law enforcement officers should use citations instead of arrests or other diversions whenever safely possible — a reform that voters overwhelmingly support. Texas law already allows for law enforcement to do this in many instances, but it has yet to become the norm in most Texas cities.
- Make individualized decisions about pretrial release based on risk to public safety and risk of flight. Magistrate judges should make such decisions at hearings held promptly after an individual is booked in jail (at least 48 hours) and with defense counsel present. Any risk assessment tool guiding this decision should be validated (meaning it’s been proven to accurately predict risk), should remove obstacles to equal justice rather than perpetuate them, and should not dictate judicial decisions.
- Release eligible individuals on personal bond without requiring them to pay any money. Most people can be safely released while they’re waiting for trial, and no person should be detained solely due to their inability to pay bail. If the judge believes that certain conditions of release, like drug testing or regular check-ins, are necessary to guarantee safety and court appearance, the judge can impose the least restrictive conditions necessary. If the judge believes a monetary bond or detention is appropriate, the judge can order those and make written findings for why they are doing so.
- Expand transparency in the pretrial justice system. The public would be better informed about how the pretrial system operates if the legislature required that bail hearings be open to the public. Courts should also be required to collect and publish data regarding risk assessment, judicial decisions and related metrics.
For more information and details about best practices in pretrial justice, read our description of the key components of pretrial reform.
This session, the legislature should listen to what their constituents support when it comes to pretrial justice. If the legislature focuses on proven best practices, they will ultimately make Texas communities safer while also advancing fairness and equal justice.