AUSTIN, Texas — One of Gov. Greg Abbott’s top priority for the special session agenda is making major changes to the state’s bail system.
He declared it an emergency item to address during the regular session after calling the current system a public safety risk.
Lawmakers have already filed legislation to tackle the issue during the special session.
House Bill 2 imposes restrictions on whether, and how, criminal defendants can be released before their trials through personal bonds, which do not require cash upfront.
The bill’s proponents said it will keep people who are considered a risk to public safety behind bars, but opponents said it mainly targets people who are poor and can’t afford bail.
“This is about the risk to society of the person that’s receiving bail," Sen. Paul Bettencourt, (R-Houston).
Supporters of the Republican bill to overhaul the bail system said it aims to keep people who are considered dangerous from being released before their trial.
“Society does not, it’s not served well by having high risk people out and committing more additional crimes," said Bettencourt.
“The goal of the legislation is to base the pretrial release system on someone's risk of failing to appear in court or harming their community, rather than essentially basing our pretrial system on someone's ability to pay," said Nikki Pressley, Texas State Director for Right on Crime at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
The bill would prevent people who are accused of certain crimes considered to be violent from being released on personal bond, which does not require cash upfront.
Those people could potentially still be released if they have the money to pay bail.
Critics of the bill said it disproportionately targets poor people.
"If someone has no access to cash, which in Texas, there are millions of people who live below the federal poverty line, then the only way that they can get out of jail, pending trial, is to get a personal bond. Otherwise if cash bail is set, they have to either pay a bondsman fee to get out of jail, or they have to pay up front the full cash bail amount which can be hundreds, thousands of dollars, money that many Texans simply don't have access to," said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project. “When you eliminate the possibility of getting a personal bond basically what you're doing is you're saying the poorest of the poor cannot get out of jail, but if you have money, we'll set a cash bail amount and you can get out of jail. So it really just discriminates against poor people.”
“You may be stuck there for months, weeks, or years awaiting trial for an offense that may be dismissed or you may be innocent of in first place," said Nick Hudson, policy and advocacy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.
The bill’s supporters said it’s a public safety issue.
“If people have already committed violent acts, why in good conscience will we give out 10 PR bonds to the same person, if they're continuing a violent crime spree?" said Bettencourt.
While the bill's opponents said it’ll just harm already vulnerable communities.
“If I'm a poor kid that decides, I went into Walmart, I wanted to steal some food. On my way out, I end up pushing someone so that I can get out of the store. [Then] I'm charged with aggravated robbery, that qualifies in the state of Texas. If I'm stealing food, the chances are I probably can't afford a cash bail," said Rep. Jasmine Crockett, (D-Dallas)
The bill also said charitable organizations that provide bail funds cannot do so for people who are charged with crimes that are considered violent, or have previously been convicted of a violent crime.
This does not apply to charitable bail organizations that are religiously affiliated or only provide bail money for three or fewer people every six months.
Activists have called this an attack on groups who crowdfund bail funds for protesters like those that were arrested during the Justice for George Floyd protests last summer.
The bill is scheduled for a public hearing this Saturday.