County leaders champion no-cash bail
Wednesday, February 12, 2020 by Jack Craver
Amidst an aggressive push from activists to reduce arrests and incarceration, Travis County leaders highlighted two important initiatives Tuesday as evidence that the county is a leader in progressive criminal justice policy.
First, the Travis County Commissioners Court quickly approved a request from Sheriff Sally Hernandez to close down four buildings at the Travis County Jail that Hernandez said are no longer necessary due to a reduced jail population.
Buildings 5-8 were constructed in the early 1990s and were originally intended to be temporary solutions to overcrowding. The facilities have rarely been used in recent years, but the county still spends roughly $1,200 a month in utilities. The result will be nearly 200 fewer beds.
Later, the Commissioners Court considered a recently announced policy by county judges that individuals arrested for most misdemeanors will automatically be released on their own recognizance without having to post cash bail.
The majority of those booked on misdemeanors are already granted “personal bonds” that don’t require posting cash bail. However, they obtain them after being interviewed by staff in the county’s pretrial services division, which then makes a recommendation to a magistrate judge on whether the individual should be released. Under the new policy, many defendants will skip the screening process.
Some advocates for defendants, however, say the new policy doesn’t go far enough. They point to reforms recently adopted in Harris County that allow many defendants to go free without having to go before a judge. Instead, the magistration process, where a judge informs the defendant of the charges against them and informs them of their rights, takes place at a hearing that is set for a later date.
Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, described the magistration process as dehumanizing.
“People are shackled in pairs, wearing orange uniforms; they don’t get access to an attorney,” she said.
Above all else, defendant advocates complain that many of those released on personal bonds nevertheless spend many hours or days waiting to be magistrated. That wait might cost them their jobs or even their kids.
Judge Elisabeth Earle, one of the judges who signed off on the new policy, said in the future some inmates may be able to stay in their own clothing during magistration.
Certain misdemeanors are excluded from the new policy, including repeat drunk driving, assault and violations of protective orders. Those already on parole or probation are also not eligible. People who fall under those categories will not be ineligible for personal bonds, but they will not be automatically granted them.
Commissioner Brigid Shea described the new policy as another important step in the county’s history of being a leader in progressive bail practices. She noted that Travis County became the first in Texas to introduce personal bonds in 1978.
“I think we’ve been hearing a lot – because it’s campaign season – the idea that Travis County is sort of a place of mass incarceration,” she said, ostensibly referencing the races for district attorney and county attorney. “But I think it’s important to call out the important work Travis County has been doing to divert people who have ended up on the wrong side of the criminal justice system (from jail).”
Commissioner Gerald Daugherty said he still had mixed feelings about the direction of the county’s bail policies and conceded that numerous break-ins at the parking lot of his business in recent weeks may have reduced his capacity for compassion.
Nevertheless, he said, “Fewer people in jail means something to me. And I think that that’s probably the right thing to do.”
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