The Texas House on Monday moved to alter the way criminal defendants can be released from jail before trial. The priority legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.
House members initially approved House Bill 20 after significant changes — largely by the bill’s author — were made on the floor.
“The goal today is to strike a balance in which we provide … credible information to our trained magistrates so that they can determine that those that are low risk have a chance to get out while those who are higher risk, with a violent offense or a violent criminal history, they don’t easily pay and immediately walk on the street the next day and do something else that harms us,” said state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the bill.
Named the Damon Allen Act after a slain state trooper, HB 20 was deemed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott at the beginning of the legislative session after similar legislation failed in 2019. The suspect in Allen’s shooting death during a 2017 traffic stop was out of jail on cash bail at the time.
On Monday, the bill was tentatively approved by the House on a simple voice vote, but it still needs a final vote before it is sent to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill which varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 since has stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release from jail a defendant who is legally presumed innocent while ensuring the person comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is currently based on a dollar amount.
The cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocateswho argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.