In a press conference on Tuesday, Gov. Greg Abbott announced the “Damon Allen Act,” a set of proposals aimed at reforming the bail system. Though bail reform proponents typically advocate for reform to protect low-risk defendants from excessive bail and long pre-trial stays, Abbott’s reform is meant to “protect law enforcement and enhance public safety.”
The proposal comes in response to the murder of State Trooper Damon Allen. Allen was shot and killed on Thanksgiving Day in 2017 following a traffic stop in Freestone County. His accused killer had a lengthy criminal record, one that included prior violence towards law enforcement officers. He was released on bond because of a lack of communication regarding his prior convictions.
The proposal has a few major points:
- Modify bail-setting rules to require a magistrate consider the criminal history of a defendant and to consider all other relevant information, including impact on law enforcement
- Magistrate’s must consider technical issues of mental health and family violence. For felony cases, or misdemeanors involving sexual offenses, determinations should be made by a district court and associate judges.
- Creation of a uniform Court Management System through the Office of Courts Administration to enhance information sharing.
- For defendants already on parole, probation, or bond, steps should be taken prior to setting their bail.
One of the state’s leading criminal justice reform projects, Right on Crime, issued a press release applauding the governor’s efforts:
“We join Governor Abbott in mourning the death of this brave trooper whose killer had been released on money bail without any supervision,” said Marc Levin, Vice President of Criminal Justice at Texas Public Policy Foundation and Right on Crime. “We commend the Governor for urging Texas lawmakers to move to a risk-based system in which pretrial release decisions are based on public safety. This will ensure that defendants who pose a danger to law enforcement and others to stay in jail. We were pleased to join the Texas judiciary in supporting bail reform legislation last session and look forward to working alongside Governor Abbott, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, and legislative leaders to pass legislation in the upcoming session that prioritizes public safety and respects constitutional rights.”
The Texas Judicial Council also released a statement with comments from Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, “I applaud Governor Abbott for taking a hard look at a difficult issue that has been a concern of the Judiciary in recent years. Texas law limits judges’ power to detain high-risk defendants, while low-risk defendants are held unjustifiably at taxpayer expense under a faulty bail system,” he continued, “Liberty is previous to Americans, and any deprivation must be scrutinized.”
He went on to discuss how in twenty years, the state’s jail population of those awaiting trial went from one-third to three-fourths now costing taxpayers almost $1 billion on an annual basis. “In sum, high-risk defendants, a threat to society, are freed; low-risk defendants sit in jail, an unnecessary burden on taxpayers. This makes no sense,” he said.
This proposal comes as both Harris and Dallas counties are engaged in lawsuits over bail systems accused of being unconstitutional for holding poorer defendants at a disproportionally higher rate than wealthier defendants.
While it’s commendable that the governor wants to make sure that offenders who are a threat to law enforcement have that taken into consideration when their bail is set, steps need to be taken to make sure that offenders, especially those in major counties like Harris and Dallas, aren’t unjustly denied or delayed bail.