The House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence, chaired by Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), recently held hearings on several of its interim charges, including its charge to monitor the work of the Office of Court Administration (OCA) on pretrial risk assessment tools for the Texas Judiciary and the use of such tools at various stages in the criminal justice process. Pretrial risk assessment tools are instruments that review a variety of risk factors to help assess a defendant’s public safety risk and likelihood of appearing in court.
During the Aug. 30 hearing, several witnesses testified on various aspects of the use of pretrial risk assessments and bail reform. In his testimony, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted that 20 years ago, roughly one-third of the Texas jail population was awaiting trial, while that percentage is now closer to three-fourths. Hecht also highlighted the recommendations of the Texas Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state judiciary, relating to bail reform and legislative measures proposed during the 85th session.
Specifically, the chief justice discussed SB 1338 by Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston), a bill that would have required magistrates to consider the results of a pretrial risk assessment before setting bail in a defendant’s case, among other provisions. That legislation passed the Senate during the 85th session, but failed in the House. The bill codified recommendations adopted by the Judicial Council regarding the use of pretrial risk assessments. The Judicial Council’s Criminal Justice Committee has proposed nearly identical recommendations in its recent report, which means that similar legislation will likely be filed in the upcoming legislative session.
In her testimony to the committee, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg noted that any discussion about reforming the bail system must consider resources for counties to offset the costs of monitoring and supervising defendants released on bond. Such monitoring and supervision is important for promoting public safety and ensuring that defendants show up for court. The Judicial Council’s Criminal Justice Committee report includes a recommendation that the Legislature provide funding to ensure that pretrial supervision is available to defendants released on a pretrial release bond so that they are adequately supervised.
According to testimony provided by David Slayton, Administrative Director of the Office of Court Administration, approximately six counties across the state are using validated risk assessments when setting bail. Slayton also discussed OCA’s current efforts to develop a web-based risk assessment tool to assist judges in making pretrial release decisions.
The committee also heard from a representative of the American Bail Coalition, which represents bail bondsmen. The representative expressed concerns over the use of risk assessment tools and the mixed results of bail reform efforts in other states.
Many witnesses during the hearing also referenced Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent bail reform proposal. The governor’s proposal, known as the Damon Allen Act, is named after a Department of Public Safety trooper who was killed in the line of duty.
Specifically, the proposal would require a magistrate, when setting bail, to consider the criminal history of a defendant, as well as the impact on law enforcement. It would require district judges to set bail in felony cases or misdemeanors involving sexual offenses and assault. Additionally, it calls for the creation of a uniform Case Management System through OCA to close critical information gaps, especially in counties with populations under 20,000.
During the hearing, there was also some discussion on the bail reform litigation throughout the state. Three counties (Harris, Galveston, and Dallas) are currently facing lawsuits regarding their bail systems.
An archived video of the entire House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee hearing on Aug. 30 is available on the Texas House website.
The committee is expected to issue a report with recommendations prior to the beginning of the next legislative session in January 2019. TAC staff will continue to monitor this issue as we head into the next session. For additional information, please contact Laura V. Garcia, Senior Legislative Counsel, at (800) 456-5974.