Texas’ current bail system endangers public safety

Photo by John Jordan / The Texas Tribune

The recent TribTalk about bail reform by Stacie Rumenap of Stop Child Predators pushes to maintain the current system of unjust pretrial practices that harm the poor and endanger public safety.

Under the pretense of “holding criminals accountable,” Rumenap argues for continued violations of constitutional protections that virtually guarantee that wealthier defendants can secure release irrespective of their risk to the public, while poorer defendants, often people of color, remain in jail awaiting trial.

We are calling for all Texas counties to use validated risk assessments — the evidence-based tools that help judges make pretrial release determinations. These assessments are far more effective than the money bail system at determining whether it is safe to release a defendant prior to trial. Under the current system, defendants can pay money in exchange for release, regardless of offense, unless they meet certain exceptional circumstances that require them to be detained prior to trial.

On the other hand, a system that relies on assessment measures more important factors than wealth; it measures factors correlated with public safety and the likelihood of returning for a court appearance. When Kentucky shifted toward the use of a validated risk assessment instead of money bail, the result was a 15 percent statewide decrease in pretrial crime. Further, the policies resulted in no decrease in court appearance rates, and they significantly reduced the proportion of the county jail population detained while awaiting trial, saving taxpayers money while improving public safety.

Rumenap claims validated risk assessments are “racially biased.” The truth is that the current system of relying on cash bail ensures that Black and Latino defendants are 66 percent to 91 percent more likely to remain in jail prior to trial than are white defendants, often due to an inability to pay for their release. The result is a system that allows high-risk defendants to walk the streets, whereas low-income people of color charged with nonviolent offenses, like simple drug possession, are two times more likely to be detained at taxpayer expense. That’s real racial disparity.

Rumenap’s op-ed does considerable harm by promoting an unconstitutional assertion that detaining people as they await trial “holds criminals accountable.” But the courts have made clear that detaining people simply for their inability to pay a bail bondsman is a violation of constitutional rights. The only allowable considerations are whether a defendant will appear in court and whether releasing a defendant might pose a risk to public safety. Those two considerations protect us all because we live in a nation where people are innocent until proven guilty. Perhaps the staff of Stop Child Predators missed that chapter in government class.

Smart justice reforms make our communities safer. For this reason, calling bail reform a “slap in the face to victims and survivors” could not be further from the truth. Texans deserve a system of pretrial justice that is not based on whether a defendant can afford to pay bail. The system should keep high-risk defendants behind bars, promoting accountability and preventing further victimization, while allowing low-risk defendants to access community-based treatment and services that address the real root causes of crime.

Doing otherwise puts more people at risk. The longer people wait in jail, unable to pay bondsmen, the greater the risk they’ll lose their jobs or homes — which only makes it harder for them to live stable, productive lives in our communities. Similarly, as people sit for weeks or months in jail, they lose contact with family and community connections, which increases the likelihood of future arrests. A major study on the effects of pretrial detention found that the frequency at which low-risk defendants committed new crimes correlated to the amount of time they were detained prior to trial. Even short periods of pretrial detention will increase the likelihood that a low-risk defendant may eventually commit a new crime.

Texas must move towards an evidence-based bond system that relies on validated risk assessments instead of money bail, and it must prioritize pretrial interventions, like treatment or mental health screening for low-level offenses, to help people land on their feet and live responsibly. Such a system is just and equitable, is a prudent use of taxpayer dollars and contributes to a strong Texas workforce. It’s time for Texas counties to base a defendant’s pretrial release on risk — rather than ability to pay — to prevent unnecessary, costly detention and to truly protect crime victims and survivors.

Bill Hammond

Chief strategist, Texas Smart-On-Crime Coalition

@texashammond

Lindsey Linder

Attorney, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition

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