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On August 7, Texas Governor Greg Abbott announced a new package of proposals intended to reform the state’s bail system. Together the collection was named the “Damon Allen Act,” to commemorate a state trooper who was killed in the line of duty last Thanksgiving.
During a traffic stop, Trooper Allen was ambushed and fatally shot by a man who had been released on bond, despite a substantial criminal record (he had been convicted of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy and recently arrested on charges ranging from aggravated assault on a public servant and evading arrest). The justice of the peace who released the slayer said he did not know of the man’s criminal record.
In the announcement at Waco, the nearest major city to where Trooper Allen was killed, Gov. Abbott declared the legislative package to revise the state’s bail system to “better protect innocent life, keep violent criminals off our streets and prevent tragedies” like the trooper’s killing.
Members of the late trooper’s family joined the governor at the announcement, along with some members of the state legislature and officials from the Department of Public Safety.
Under the governor’s legislative proposal, to be introduced when the Texas legislature begins its new session in January, local magistrates would be required to consider a defendant’s criminal history when making decisions on bail, and bail for the more serious cases (dealing with felonies or misdemeanors involving assault or sexual offenses) would have to be heard by district judges, rather than by lower-level magistrates.
Another part of the legislative package would create a court management system to make information on defendants’ criminal history, mental health history, and outstanding protective orders available to those making decisions on bail. If a defendant were under supervision by another agency, that agency would have to be notified of the bail hearing.
Also, a potential threat to any law enforcement personnel would be written into the factors that bail decision-makers would have to consider.
Bail reform has been a major issue in Texas. In the most recent legislative session, the Senate passed a bail reform bill that aimed to lessen the burdens of money bail on low-income defendants charged with non-violent offenses. The bill died when the Texas House declined to act.
Money bail procedures used in the state’s most populous county have been successfully challenged in a federal lawsuit as unconstitutionally keeping low-income defendants jailed until their cases are heard, because they cannot afford to pay bail, and other similar suits have been brought elsewhere, as many communities and counties re-examine their bail rules and procedures.
The conservative 5th Circuit found that bail practices for indigent plaintiffs arrested in Harris County on suspicion of misdemeanor charges violated equal protection rights when they essentially create one system of justice for well-off defendants and another system for those who are poor. At the same time, it ordered the trial judge to review some “overboard” portions of her original ruling that it found too restrictive on how county officials deal with bail decisions for indigent defendants.