The U.S. Constitution prohibits the setting of excessive bail in criminal cases. However, countless defendants in Texas are kept in custody awaiting trial solely because of a lack of financial resources. Requiring cash bail creates a significant disparity on the basis of income, regardless of the defendant’s potential danger to the community or risk of flight.
However, change is in progress. A wave of bail reforms began in 2016 in Harris County (which includes Houston) when a group of plaintiffs charged with low-level, nonviolent offenses filed a class action lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of their required bail. Their legal counsel cited studies demonstrating that people of low income are more likely to plead guilty for the purpose of accelerating the process — whether or not they had actually committed an offense — due to the hardships that result from indefinite pretrial detention. In 2017, a federal judge agreed that the current bail system was unconstitutional and ordered reforms. A new rule was adopted, providing for pretrial release without bail of all misdemeanor arrestees except those charged with assault or domestic violence.
Now, Travis County, which includes Dallas, has joined the reform movement. In February 2020, the county’s seven court-at-law judges issued a standing order, effective immediately, that significantly expands the use of personal recognizance bonds to most misdemeanor cases. This form of release does not require a cash payment. The defendant need only pay an administrative fee, promise to return to court for trial and remain in compliance with any other conditions imposed.
The standing order does not guarantee release. A personal recognizance bond may be denied on the basis of a defendant’s criminal history or perceived risk to alleged victims or witnesses. The county’s pretrial service department has been ordered to financially screen defendants prior to magistration hearings and to provide the results to the court. Furthermore, the judges recommended providing defendants with 24-hour access to representation by a criminal defense attorney at the hearings.
Bail reform advocates welcome the changes but say the standing order falls short. Instead, they are pushing for release on personal recognizance bonds prior to magistration.
The next venue for bail reform in Texas will likely be Bexar County, which includes San Antonio. Judge Ron Rangel recently submitted a letter to Bexar’s court-at-law judges recommending implementation and enhancement of the Travis County bail reforms. The letter backed the release of misdemeanor defendants “as soon as practicable after arrest,” with the exception of certain individuals (including those accused of making terroristic threats) who may be detained for up to 48 hours.
At The Law Offices of Kevin Collins in San Antonio, we vigorously advocate for pretrial release on favorable or zero bail for eligible defendants. If you’ve been arrested on criminal charges in Texas, call 210-598-8629 right away or contact us online to arrange for immediate legal representation.