News / World

New Texas group opposes bipartisan efforts to end cash bail

AUSTIN, Texas — A new Texas non-profit promoting crime victims' rights is opposing bipartisan efforts to end cash bail systems that have gained traction around the country — hitting back at one of the few issues that unified powerful advocates on both the right and left.

Formally kicking off Thursday, the Texas Alliance for Safe Communities said it wants to strengthen public safety and curb violent crime by pushing in the Republican-controlled Legislature and beyond for criminal justice system accountability while preserving "judicial discretion."

The group hopes to halt bail system overhauls favouring assessments of defendants' danger to the public. Supporters of such changes say defendants deemed little risk should be eligible to be released from jail on "unsecured" bonds that don't require cash payments — rather than traditional, cash bond systems where defendants forfeit payments if they fail to show up in court.

"Texas communities are under assault by activist judges and misguided bureaucrats determined to let violent criminals get out of jail free," said Mark Miner, who was spokesman for former Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2012 presidential campaign and now holds the same role for the alliance.

Similar groups defending cash bonds have popped up in other states and are often sponsored by bail bond companies worried about losing business. Miner said bail bond interests "are assisting with funding as the group is beginning." He said two of its five founding board members have links to the industry.

"They are part of the organization, but they're not the only part," Miner said of bail bond interests, adding that the alliance expects to attract members of other victims' groups, police organizations and "many ordinary citizens."

Bail system reform has been approved in New Jersey and New Mexico, and discussed in California, Florida and elsewhere. It's been applauded by conservatives anxious to reduce prison costs, like the powerful Austin think-tank the Texas Public Policy Foundation, as well as groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, that argue current bail rules — like the prison system as a whole — disproportionately punish minorities and poor people.

"Money bail doesn't have anything to do with public safety because there's not really a correlation between how much money someone has and whether they're a risk to the public," said Marc Levin, the Texas Public Policy Foundation's vice-president for criminal justice policy.

Billionaire industrialists Charles and David Koch haven't been as vocal about bail reform, but have promoted a variety of wider criminal justice reform efforts, including initiatives meant to reduce prisoners' recidivism rates.

A proposal mandating risk assessments for bail-eligible criminal defendants was approved by the Texas Senate last year but stalled in the state House. Still, a lawsuit in Harris County, Texas' largest, prompted a federal judge to rule in October that county bail requirements violated the rights of poor defendants accused of minor crimes — and to order jails to release within 24 hours nearly all offenders facing misdemeanour charges.

Late Wednesday, an appeals court panel mostly upheld the previous decision but found some of its conclusions "overbroad" and ordered the 24-hour deadline pushed back to 48 hours.

That was a small win for the Alliance for Safe Communities, which had said that because misdemeanour defendants released in Harris County didn't have to put up a cash bond or hire a bail bond service, 43 per cent failed to appear for subsequent court dates. County officials, though, have questioned the accuracy of that figure, pointing to confusion in jail reports — including inmates possibly being double-counted.

The alliance has produced two online ads it contends highlight the dangers of ending cash bail. They include the case of a Harris County man suspected of killing his girlfriend in October, days after he was previously jailed on assault charges but released after saying he couldn't afford $5,000 bail.

"The other side has been very well-financed, but on one side of the issue," Miner said.

Houston Police Officers Union President Joe Gamaldi said cash-free bonds should be extended to people jailed for minor offences like shoplifting, but not violent criminals or repeat offenders.

"Not every case is the same," Gamaldi said, citing the same 43 per cent failure-to-appear-in-court figure from Harris County. "When you paint everything with a broad brush, this is what happens."

More on Metronews.ca