Bail reform means safer communities

Photo by iStock/zimmytws

Public safety matters to each and every Texan, no matter our political party, race or religion. Every single one of us wants safe and secure communities where our children and families can thrive without fear of crime.

Bail reform done the right way — basing pretrial release decisions on risk rather than money — will ultimately lead to fewer crimes and safer communities. That’s why the Legislature should pass bail reform legislation next session to improve pretrial justice in Texas.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what “bail reform” is. Fundamentally, bail reform means providing judges with better information about people who have been charged with crimes but who have not yet been convicted, including how likely a person is to commit another crime if released and how likely they are to fail to show up to court. This would lead to better informed judicial decision-making about who to release before trial.

Opponents of bail reform claim that bail reform will undermine public safety and cause crime victims to suffer, but in fact, the opposite is true. In our current cash bail system, dangerous people are released all the time. Judges set a cash bond, and anyone who can afford that bond amount — no matter how dangerous they are — can buy their release. Meanwhile, anyone who cannot afford that bond amount — no matter how low-risk — remains in jail.

Research has shown that more dangerous people are released in a cash bail system than in a risk-based bail system. Texas A&M’s Public Policy Research Institute compared two Texas jurisdictions: Tarrant County, which relies primarily on cash bail, like most Texas counties, and Travis County, which is one of a handful of Texas counties that has implemented a risk assessment tool to inform pretrial release decisions. The researchers’ findings alone should compel Texas to reform its bail system: 12 percent more violent crimes were committed by people released on bond in Tarrant County’s cash bail system than in Travis County’s risk-based system. In fact, there were 13 more homicides committed by people who had been released pretrial in Tarrant County over a 3 ½ year period.

Despite the fact that risk-based bail systems are safer, opponents of bail reform are misleading policymakers and the public by citing cases like that of Armando Juarez, who was released on bond when he tragically shot and killed a Dallas police officer and wounded another police officer and a loss prevention officer. In fact, the use of a risk assessment tool in Juarez’s case could have flagged that he was, in fact, high-risk, based on his previous failure to appear in court multiple times, his previous arrest while released on a cash bond and prior felony conviction and arrests, possibly leading to his detention.

Risk-based bail keeps us safe in another way too: by keeping people who are not public safety threats out of jail. There are a lot of Texans who make mistakes resulting in arrest, but who are not dangerous — people arrested for things like shoplifting, failing to pay a cab fare or failing to pay a ticket. When these people are jailed, it often leads to them losing jobs, becoming disconnected from their families and support networks or being evicted from their homes. Jobs, families and homes naturally have a positive, stabilizing effect in people’s lives, and when we remove those fundamental resources by jailing people unnecessarily, they are more likely to be arrested again. Research has demonstrated that we are all safer when low-risk people are diverted from jail booking or released as quickly as possible after booking.

Bail reform is ultimately about keeping our communities safer, detaining people who threaten public safety and releasing others quickly so that they can return to their lives while awaiting trial. Providing judges with information about people’s risk levels would allow them to make better informed decisions about pretrial release. The Legislature should take the opportunity in 2019 to make this incredibly important step towards public safety.

Texas A&M University and Texas Appleseed have been  financial supporters of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

Mary Mergler

Criminal justice project director, Texas Appleseed