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Texas lawmakers file bills to reform bail bond practices

Texas Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Representative Andrew Murr (R-Junction) introduced bills Thursday that will require courts perform a pretrial risk assessment to determine if someone should be released on their own recognizance in lieu of cash bonds.

In Texas, if someone is arrested and charged with a crime, their ability to get out of jail is based on whether they can pay a cash bond. But two lawmakers want to change that and instead allow people to be released based on their individual risk.

Senator John Whitmire (D-Houston) and Representative Andrew Murr (R-Junction) introduced SB 1338, SJR 50, HB 3011 and HJR 98 Thursday based on the findings of a two-year study conducted by the Texas Judicial Council and Public Policy Research Institute.

The bills require courts perform pretrial risk assessments to determine if someone is a flight risk, is likely to show up for court and if they pose a threat to the public's safety. If people aren't a risk, they could be released on their own recognizance in lieu of a cash bond.

The concept is widely supported in the criminal justice community. The Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht spoke in favor of the bills Thursday and cited a recent example of a Dallas-area woman kept in jail because she couldn't afford bond.

"A middle-aged woman arrested for shoplifting $105 worth of clothing for her grandchildren sat in jail almost two months because bail was set at $150,000, far more than all her worldly goods," said Hecht. "Was she a threat to society? No. Flight risk? No. Cost to tax payers? $3,300."

The study found Texas counties spend $900 million dollars a year housing people awaiting trial and that people in pre-trial detention are more likely to lost their jobs, leaving them unable to support their families, than someone released within 24-hours.

Whitmire said there is also a public safety factor in the bills, noting often times dangerous criminals can post bond and go back to their criminal activities, while low-income Texans jailed for minor offenses, such as a traffic violation, are jailed.

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