A last-minute change to a bail reform bill in the Texas legislature would remove protections for people accused of crimes with no ability to pay for their release.
Bail reform once again advanced to the floor of the Texas Senate late Thursday night, this time in the form of a Senate committee substitute for House Bill 20. The change sets up a possible back-room fight between the Senate and the House over some critical details.
HB 20 originally passed the House with some Democratic amendments designed to protect the rights of indigent defendants. Among those was an amendment by state Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, that would allow a defendant who can not afford the full amount of bail assessed to fill out an affidavit swearing to how much the person can afford to pay.
But when the bill reached the Senate Committee on Jurisprudence, committee chair state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, replaced it with a substitute – her own bill, Senate Bill 21, which lacked such protections.
In offering her substitute, Huffman referred to the extensive testimony when SB 21 previously came up before her committee last month.
“We heard from Harris County DA Kim Ogg, who testified to the disturbing crime statistics in Houston is suffering as a direct result of the current bail system,” Huffman said.
On that occasion, Ogg testified that in 2015, about 3,200 offenders out on bond were accused in 6,348 crimes. By 2020, approximately 10,500 individuals on bond were accused of 18,796 new offenses.
“Far too many families have suffered from these bail practices,” Huffman said. “We had a very, very thorough vetting of this bill when it came to the committee, and on the floor there was a vigorous debate.”
Huffman’s substitute passed her committee unanimously. If it passes the full Senate, the two chambers will have to set up a conference committee to iron out their differences, likely behind closed doors.
Many criminal justice reformers were already opposed to the language in HB 20, but Huffman’s substitute of SB 21’s language raised a red flag with those who came to testify.
“The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has repeatedly held that it is unconstitutional to hold somebody in jail because they cannot afford to pay a bond, while allowing the release of an identically situated person who happens to have money,” said Amelia Casas, a policy analyst with the Texas Fair Defense Project. “This bill would do exactly that, forbidding magistrates from releasing a huge number of people if they do not have money, while allowing those who do have money to purchase their freedom.”