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A Texas Republican priority bill that would have made it harder for people arrested to bond out of jail without cash was killed on Sunday after House Democrats walked out of the chamber to block the passage of the GOP priority voting bill.
After the Senate and House passed significantly different versions of House Bill 20, a group of mostly Republican lawmakers negotiated behind closed doors this weekend to arrive at a sweeping bill to change how and if people should be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved.
The Senate signed off on the new version of HB 20 Sunday evening. The House had until midnight to accept it, but because the negotiated bill had been filed late, it needed Democrats on board for it to move. And even before the midnight deadline, the bill died when Democrats walked out on Senate Bill 7, breaking a quorum and preventing a vote on the measure. The regular legislative session ends Monday.
In a statement Sunday night, Gov. Greg Abbott said that changes to bail — which he had declared an emergency item earlier this year — would be added to the agenda for a special legislative session. He did not specify when the session would be, though lawmakers are already expected to return in the fall to redraw the state’s political maps.
“It is deeply disappointing and concerning for Texans that neither will reach my desk,” Abbott said, referring to HB 20 and the Republican priority voting bill. “Legislators will be expected to have worked out the details when they arrive at the Capitol for the special session.”
The final version of HB 20 would have significantly changed Texas’ bail laws. Though bail reform efforts nationwide typically prioritize preventing the detention of people who haven’t been convicted of a crime simply because they are poor, state Republican leaders have instead focused on keeping people deemed dangerous by courts behind bars before their criminal case is resolved.
HB 20 sought to clamp down on jail releases in several ways. It would have banned release from jail on personal bonds — in which cash is not required upfront — for people accused of violent or sexual crimes. And, as it became more common for charitable organizations to bail out protesters arrested during the unrest after a police officer murdered George Floyd, HB 20 would have prevented such groups from posting bond for people accused — or ever previously convicted — of a violent crime. Any group could still have posted bail for up to three people every six months, and religious organizations were exempt from the restriction.
“This bill has been meticulously worked on for months in an effort to address our broken felony bail system and prevent violent offenders out on bond from committing more crimes,” state Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said Sunday before the chamber approved the final version of the bill on a 20-11 vote.
A related measure to allow court officials to outright deny the release from jail for more criminal defendants also failed to move in the House. That measure still would have required approval from Texas voters if it had passed.
Many bail reform advocates have pushed back against HB 20 in all of its forms, arguing the bail bills still relied too much on a money bail system that criminalizes poverty. Nick Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said Sunday after the bill’s failure that HB 20 “undermined public safety while punishing the poor” and helped the for-profit bail bonds industry.
“Now, it’s time to go back to the drawing board,” he said in a statement. “In the coming months, we’ll work with lawmakers and partners to create a strong, fair justice system for the benefit and wellbeing of all Texans.”
Huffman said Sunday that the limit to personal bonds was focused on those accused of violent crimes, but the final bill reinserted some offenses that the House had removed after jail rights advocates expressed concerns. For example, some advocates worried that banning cashless release for those accused of low-level assault charges against police officers would target people in a mental health crisis, as they often resist being touched by officers and are then charged with assault. Requiring money bail in such cases, they argued, would keep even more people with mental illness stuck in county jails.
Other major pieces of the sweeping bill would have required court officials to consider a defendant’s criminal history before setting bail, though it removed the House’s controversial risk assessment tool that sought to tell judges how likely a person would be to intentionally skip court hearings or commit a new crime if released on bail. Judicial officers would also have been required to consider the defendant’s citizenship status, a Senate provision that a Brownsville Democrat feared would encourage racial profiling.
“Nothing in a person’s citizenship status makes them more likely to be a flight risk,” state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. said in an April hearing on the measure.
In response to federal court rulings against Texas bail practices, the bill would have allowed arrestees to get a court hearing within two days of their arrest if they filled out a form arguing they were indigent. The form would have required detailing a lengthy financial history, however, as opposed to the House’s version of the bill which simply would have asked defendants to state how much cash they could get within 24 hours.
In other state houses, a driving focus in reform efforts is to stop keeping people in jail simply because they’re poor. Studies have linked even a few days in jail to harmful, lasting effects that can exacerbate poverty — such as housing instability, job loss and future encounters in the criminal justice system.
But efforts to shift away from money bail have not always gone smoothly. After New York passed a bill in 2019 to largely eliminate cash bail for many nonviolent offenses, a backlash and reported increase in crime quickly caused politicians to backpedal.
What made bail policies a priority for the Texas Legislature, however, was not a desire to get poor people out of jail but examples of people bonding out of jail and then being accused of new, violent crimes.
Abbott first prioritized bail changes after the 2017 killing of state trooper Damon Allen, who was killed during a traffic stop while the suspect was out on bond. In the Senate, Huffman said the chamber’s legislation was targeted at “the appalling uptick in violent crimes by defendants out on multiple personal bonds” in her hometown of Houston.
Homicides have risen in Harris County and other large cities in the country. Still, an independent monitor of the county’s federal court settlement over misdemeanor bail practices found that low-level defendants freed under a new system that let most people out without cash bail were not more likely to commit new crimes.
The settlement came after federal courts found bail practices in Harris County unconstitutionally discriminatory based on wealth. Federal judges ruled both Harris and Dallas counties allowed defendants quickly to walk out of jail if they had cash while poor people accused of the same crime with the same criminal history were kept in jail for weeks and months.
HB 20’s failure this year is not the first time a Texas Legislature has tried and failed to change bail laws. For years, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers and Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht have pushed to restructure the state’s bail laws to stop money from being the largest deciding factor in who gets out of jail before trial. In March, Hecht said in his biennial speech on the state of the judiciary that Texas was in a bail crisis.
“It’s wrong to lock up people only because they’re poor. It offends basic notions of liberty and humanity,” he said. “And it’s dangerous to release defendants only because they can afford to make bail.”
In the mid-1990s, less than a third of the people held in Texas county jails had not been convicted of their alleged crime, Hecht said. Now, those awaiting trial account for more than 83% of jail populations.