FORT WORTH, Texas — Abdul Chappell has served more than 20 years behind bars for various offenses since he was a teenager.
Decades ago, he started the local arm of the violent street gang, The Crips. These days, he runs a nonprofit, Build a Better Hood, in which he uses his street-level connections to rescue victims of human trafficking and teach at-risk youth job skills.
He’s been active in the community, including partnering with prominent local leaders such as City Councilman and former mayoral candidate Bryan Bird and civil rights activist Rev. Kyev Tatum.
The Fort Worth resident was recently arrested in nearby Johnson County. He said he was drugged by a human trafficking victim while en route to a safe house. She doped his bottled water after he took away her heroin, he said. Local police found him passed out in his car on the side of the road.
Chappell later failed a urine test as a result of being drugged, which is a violation of his probation.
Chappell’s bail was initially set at $5,000, which he managed to pay. After allegedly missing a court date and failing his urine test, he was arrested again and the bail skyrocketed to $200,000. The minimum requirement for bail is usually 10% of the total cost, so in order to stay out of jail, Chappell needed to raise $20,000. After spending time behind bars, he eventually came up with the money thanks to friends, family and community connections, but in the process, he was forced to sell his car and close a branch of his nonprofit.
Chappell’s story is all too common in a Texas criminal justice system that he and advocates of bail reform said punishes the poor.
“In communities where you have people who are just trying to make it, it’s really hard to even imagine how most families can even come up with some of the money that's asked and required,” he said. “It's pretty much like a ransom to most people in the Black community or in impoverished communities.
“Then they want you to put up your house,” he continued. “They want you to put up collateral. They want you to put up things that they can come take.”
Before the legislative session began, Gov. Greg Abbott made bail reform a priority item. Two Republican-backed bills, one in the state House and one in the Senate, aim to tackle the issue, but critics allege the would-be laws are just more of the same from the Texas GOP, who they believe want to punish the poor and keep the for-profit bail system plush with cash.
HB 20 passed the House last week. The legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.
The bill is now headed to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill that varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 has since stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.
Texas’ cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocates who argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.
State Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the House bill, has argued that HB 20 will prioritize a defendant’s risk instead of financial means by providing a report that weighs the likelihood of them intentionally skipping court or committing a new crime instead of simply assigning a dollar amount based on the current charge.
“We tend to punish those who can’t pay,” Murr said on the floor of the House.
More than 80% of people in Texas jails have not been found guilty and are still awaiting trial, he said. By requiring courts to release people on “the least restrictive conditions and minimum amount of bail,” Murr said more people could be released on personal bonds, which don’t require any cash up front.
But many bail reform advocates have denounced both the House and Senate bills, arguing against the use of risk assessment tools, restrictions on cashless bonds and continued reliance on cash bail.
Nick Hudson, a policy and advocacy strategist for the ACLU of Texas, is among those critics who believe both bills would be a huge step backward for bail reform.
“These [bills] are huge backslides for the state in part because they add more money into a system that we need to get money out of,” he said. “Money is a fundamentally irrational and random way to make decisions about who stays in jail. But the vast majority of people in our jails in Texas are there simply because they're unable to pay for their freedom. And these bills — both SB 21 and house bill 20 — single out people for unfair treatment. Both of the bills bar release for people who don't have any money, while allowing people who have money to purchase their release.”
State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-Dallas, raised constitutional concerns with prohibiting judges from releasing those accused of violent crimes on personal bonds, since such defendants could still be released if they have access to enough cash. She also echoed arguments against risk assessment tools and their consideration of criminal history in a system that disproportionately incarcerates Black people.
“Because people haven’t been able to afford bail, so many of them take hits on their records because that’s the difference between losing their kids or losing their job,” she said Monday. “They will do anything to get out, including taking a plea on an offense that they didn’t actually commit.”
“We’re taking a tool and we are basing our future decisions on a system that we all agree has been flawed in the past,” she added.
Murr said that the risk assessment tool — since renamed a public safety report — will give more information to judges, who can give the report as much weight as they want. The report would calculate how likely it is for a defendant to violate the conditions of their bond based on factors like age, current offense, pending charges and recent serious criminal history. The bill states that the report can’t use factors that disproportionately affect people of color or poor people, and it must be demonstrated to be unbiased.
Neither Murr nor Sen. Joanne Huffman, who authored SB 21, returned multiple calls and emails for this story.
Pamela Young of United Fort Worth was among those who created the Tarrant County Community Bail Fund last year, and after the murder of George Floyd, she said, donations to the then-nascent charity took off.
The fund has now paid the bail for roughly 30 people, mostly in Tarrant, Dallas and Denton counties. The vast majority of the people the group is bailing out can’t even pay the $100 or $500 minimum payment for their releases.
“These are people who are perfectly safe to come back into their community,” she said. “Most of them should have never left the community in the first place, but these folks are sitting there languishing in jail just because they're poor — just because their family doesn't have the money. And so that's why we're here.”
One of the more controversial provisions of SB 21 would forbid charities like the Tarrant County Community Bail Fund from bailing out prisoners, despite endless data that bail funds are far more successful than for-profit bail bondsmen at ensuring people return to court.
“I think that the provisions in SB 21 that limit bail funds really don't have anything to do with safety or fairness, they seem to have more to do with protecting bail industry profits,” Hudson said.
During the worst months of the pandemic, Young and the United Fort Worth team pleaded with the Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office for what is known as “compassionate releases” for nonviolent criminals in order to stop the spread of COVID-19. The sheriff’s office, she said, didn’t listen, even as protesters who took to the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s murder were filing into jail daily.
“The jail was already overcrowded, but then mass incarceration was going on,” she said. “Then came more overcrowded during the pandemic because there were no transfers out of the jail to mental facilities or to state prison. Everyone was just kind of in a holding pattern. And folks are still being arrested every day. So that made the population go up and social distancing became even more impossible.
“They said the only way that we're going to release people is if their sentences up or if they have completed everything they need to complete,” she continued. “We're not just going release people just to be releasing them.”
Last year was one of the deadliest in the history of Tarrant County jail. Of the 17 in-custody deaths in Tarrant County in 2020, officials said four were related to the coronavirus. Five deaths were ruled to be from other natural causes, and authorities haven’t announced a cause in six of the cases.
There was one other inmate suicide in late April, when Dean Ray Stewart, 50, was found dead in the jail of a hanging, medical examiner records show. Family was worried about his mental instability before he died.
The Tarrant County Sheriff’s Office did not return emails and phone calls for this story.
Young said the HB20 and SB21 don’t make sense if reducing crime and ensuring people show up for their court dates is the goal.
“They're punishing people for being poor,” she said. “If you have two people who commit the same crime — one is rich, one is poor — guess who stays in jail? The poor person. The person who is rich pays to get out, and that's not right. Bottom line.”
Hudson wouldn’t comment on the constitutionality of the proposed laws, but he said the two bills are inconsistent with what the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled, which is that the legal system can't treat people differently based on their access to money.
“The main thing that I want to get out to make sure that people know that you know these bills are not bail reform,” he said. “They would move the state backward and double down on our broken money bail system. A serious grappling with the challenges in our pre-trial system would yield a piece of legislation that would improve safety, improve court appearance and ensure we're living up to our constitutional values.”