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Travis County leaders defend bail practices

Friday, November 1, 2019 by Jack Craver

For years, Travis County leaders have touted the county’s progressive bail policies, which allow a large percentage of the accused to get out of jail without posting a cash bond.

Each person who is booked into jail on a charge is assessed by the county’s pretrial services division, which will usually recommend releasing the person on a “personal recognizance” bond while awaiting charges if the defendant is determined not to be a flight risk.

However, in response to increasing pressure locally and nationally to reduce incarceration, particularly of those awaiting trial, the Travis County Commissioners Court invited a number of county criminal justice leaders to discuss who is in the Travis County Jail.

The jail population “waxes and wanes,” said Valerie Hollier, planning project manager with Justice Planning, but is at its lowest point in a decade. The average daily jail population this year is 2,221, down from 2,600 in 2009.

Upon getting booked, every defendant is immediately seen by a magistrate judge, no matter what time of day. The magistrate sets a bond amount but then staffers from pretrial services interview the defendant to determine whether the person should be excused from posting the bond and what conditions should be applied to his or her release, such as an electronic monitoring bracelet.

That assessment is based on several factors, including the severity of the charge and concerns about the safety of a witness or victim.

About half of all defendants who are booked on felony charges are released on a personal recognizance (PR) bond. That percentage rises to about 70 percent for felony defendants who are not facing a “hold” from another jurisdiction (usually the state, federal government or another Texas county) for a parole violation.

The figures were strikingly similar for defendants facing only misdemeanor charges. Seventy-one percent of those who were not subject to parole holds were released without having to post a cash bond.

District Attorney Margaret Moore praised Travis County’s bail system, noting that in most cases a prosecutor is not involved in the decision to set a bond. Here, it is a “judicial decision made with input from Pretrial Services.”

County Attorney David Escamilla similarly distinguished the county’s practices from those of Harris County, which is in the midst of reforming its bail procedures after a federal judge ruled that the county was imposing unconstitutionally large bonds of individuals charged with low-level offenses.

After fending off attacks from the bail bond industry in the 1990s, said Escamilla, Travis County has emerged as a role model that other jurisdictions seek to emulate.

Meg Ledyard, an analyst with the county criminal court administration, said the widely cited fact that 70 percent of Travis County inmates are in jail awaiting trial gives the mistaken impression that most of the inmates are being held for long periods of time awaiting trial.

At any given time, she said, a large number of individuals are flowing through the jail as they are being processed and having their bond set. Most of them, however, will not wait in jail until their trial date.

However, a number of criminal justice reform activists came to urge the county to go further to keep people out of jail while awaiting trial. They highlighted cases in which defendants were subjected to high-dollar bonds for low-level offenses. Even when defendants are being released on PR bond, they said, it’s still extremely damaging to the defendants and their families if they have to wait days in jail before being released.

Nicolas Sawyer, a UT law student who has been conducting research on the county’s bail practices, recalled a hearing where the magistrate told a defendant who was eligible for a public defender due to indigence that he would get out of jail sooner if he hired his own lawyer.

“There continue to be people in the Travis County Jail who are there for no other reason than their inability to pay bail,” said Mary Mergler, who heads criminal justice policy at Texas Appleseed.

Escamilla conceded that there is room for improvement: “As someone who has worked in this county 34 years and as county attorney for over 17, if you want to be a surviving elected official or a good elected official, you can never be satisfied with criminal justice.”

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