The current criminal justice system in Texas leaves many inmates without hope of reentry into society. Seventy-five percent of those in county jails are awaiting trial; and according to Texas State Representative Andrew Murr, this population has increased by 50 percent in the last 25 years. Court dates are often set far into the future, leaving many defendants to sit in county jails longer than their actual sentence would be upon conviction. The cost associated with detaining non-convicted defendants statewide is totaled at $942 million. There’s an important public safety element to that expense, as well: inmates detained pretrial are also significantly more likely to commit future crimes, virtually ensuring that the population of inmates in Texas will grow simultaneously without reform, thus requiring funding increases by way of taxpayer dollars.
At present, bail can be set excessively high. This leaves a disproportionate gap, forcing those without means to remain in pretrial detention, while allowing those with means to be released, regardless of any potential threat to public safety. This has contributed to the drastic increase in the number of detained pretrial defendants in the last 25 years, creating a burden on Texas taxpayers.
Re-tooling bail to be more sensitive to risk, rather than ability to pay, is one way to address these issues. Senate Bill 628 and its companion, House Bill 1323, call for risk assessments that take prior criminal record, nature of the offense, and other individualized factors into account to aid a judge’s release decisions. This would prevent violent inmates who are a potential threat to the public from being released, while allowing inmates who are low-risk offenders the opportunity to get out on bail. A release from pretrial custody while awaiting a court date provides defendants the opportunity to work, and ensure financial stability for their household. This is superior to the current system, as it has the potential to reduce the number of pretrial detainees while ensuring that high-risk defendants remain in jail prior to trial.
Bail was never intended to be an additional punishment, but rather a means of ensuring that defendants show up for their court date. By setting unreasonable bail amounts, we restrict the freedoms of non-convicted defendants. America’s justice system is based on the belief that citizens are innocent until proven guilty, but excessive bail bonds have become a de facto punishment unto themselves. Chief Justice Nathan Hech-a leading advocate of the proposed legislation-states that we must “scrutinize any deprivation of liberty.” SB 628 begins to do that.