By MIKE MCGEE
The Dallas Examiner
During Gov. Greg Abbott’s State of the State on Feb. 1, he spoke upon a range of topics from COVID-19 and teacher salaries to religious freedom and law enforcement, as well as other subjects.
“Looking back, it’s clear that 2020 was a year unlike any in our lifetime, not just for Texas and America, but for the entire world,” remarked the governor.
In response, Grassroots Law Project Co-Founder Lee Merritt, Rep. Jasmine Crockett, D-HD100, and Austin City Council member Greg Casar spoke about the address during a virtual panel discussion, Feb. 8.
Crockett focused on state criminal justice reform. An attorney herself, she pinpointed a need for changes in the bail system.
“I was pretty excited to hear that the governor wants to prioritize bail reform,” she said.
In his remarks, Abbott mentioned a dysfunctional bail system that currently allows violent criminals back on the streets.
“Too many Texans like Damon Allen have been murdered because of our broken bail system,” the governor’s online remarks stated. “Damon Allen was a state trooper who was gunned down during a traffic stop. His killer was out on a $15,000 bond despite having previously been convicted of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy, and having been arrested on charges of evading arrest and aggravated assault on a public servant.”
Abbott called the Damon Allen Act, passed by the House in 2019 but failing to become law, an “emergency item” for this legislative session. According to the state government’s website the act focuses primarily on the safety of the community when setting bail rules. The qualifications that a magistrate uses in setting bail are increased, and critical information gaps on those who are considered for bail will be closed with a uniform court management system through the Office of Courts Administration.
It also states that “When a defendant is being supervised for prior criminal conduct, whether through parole, probation, or bond, additional steps should be taken prior to admitting them to bail,” especially if another agency is monitoring that individual. When a magistrate finds that the individual is being supervised by an agency, that agency must be notified through the case management system.
“I want to be clear,” Crockett responded. “I think we all want the same thing. I think the governor said that he wants bail reform, and I can guarantee you that those on the left want bail reform just as bad. That’s why I’m filing numerous bills on this issue,” she affirmed.
“One of those bills that’s still at draft would actually require that if someone was going to be arrested for a misdemeanor, any class – A, B or C – then, instead of going to jail they would actually be cited to court,” the representative explained. Misdemeanors of a violent nature would be exempt from the requirement.
She noted, while not condoning the acts, that if people shoplift diapers or milk from stores in order to help their families those individuals should not have to endure the same system the more dangerous defendants face.
“If we’re going to truly say that we believe in a Constitution, and that we believe that every single person arrested is presumed innocent, at some point in time they’re left incarcerated because they can’t afford to get out, sometimes that presumption of innocence kind of just goes away,” she voiced.
She added that at times her clients will plead guilty simply to avoid losing their jobs, homes or children.
The representative is also trying to modify the law in terms of how long a person can be held before being charged.
“The state is given quite some time; in fact, in the state of Texas they’re given 90 days to indict someone, so for three months you can sit in jail without formally being charged and that is perfectly lawful,” she stated.
“When we’re thinking of being fiscally conservative, that’s not doing something good for us. That’s one more person that we have to worry about that may be homeless. That’s one more person that we may pay for because now they need unemployment.”
Another concern dealt with COVID-19 and the way it is easily spread by incarceration individuals. There is no such thing as social distancing in correctional institutions, she noted.
“Because let me tell you something; coronavirus is running rampant in our jails and our prisons. Just because it’s not in the papers every single day doesn’t mean it’s not happening,” she confirmed.
Through bail and indictment reform, Crockett asserted that fewer people would be crowded into cells where COVID-19 can more rapidly spread.
“Smart and safe bail reform,” was the way for the state to be less financially liable for those who would become sick.
“I encourage you to follow my journey as I am filling these bills,” she urged as she closed her remarks about reform during the virtual rebuttal.
“They are going to do nothing but make sure that we are kept safe, but we’re also honoring what we say we believe in … and making sure that people are not unlawfully sitting in custody and taking plea deals on cases just to get out, and ruining their records forever, because in the state of Texas, sadly enough, once you take that plea deal it’s over. It will be a final conviction and there’s nothing that you can do, unless the governor decides that he wants to pardon you.”
For his part, during his address Abbott called for the legislators in Austin to labor jointly for the mutual benefit of all.
“Just as Texans have united and put their differences aside to support one another through the pandemic, we in the capitol must also come together to work on their behalf,” he said.
“We must seize this opportunity to make our state healthier, safer, freer and more prosperous for all who call Texas home.”