TEXAS VIEW: Texas’ cash bail system survives appeal, and that’s not good

THE POINT: Jail is for the violent, not the poor.

With little fanfare, the U.S. Supreme Court last week decided not to take a case challenging Dallas County’s bail bond system.

Legally, it is probably the right call, but it does little to resolve Texas’ flawed cash bail system.

In 2018, a federal judge declared that Dallas County’s bail bond system locked up poor defendants, who weren’t a threat to flee or to society, while others who could post bail went free. The ruling expressed what most didn’t want to say out loud — the ability to pay cash bail doesn’t effectively or properly assess the risk a person poses to society.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently ruled that federal courts should steer clear of reviewing and revising state bail bond procedures, and the Supreme Court ended the debate when it decided not to consider the case.

While the constitutional questions may have been resolved, the underlying issue of how best to assess the risk that a person released on bond poses remains unresolved as evidenced in a series of high-profile, tragic murders committed by people whose past record should have identified them as a risk to society.

Toward this end, Texas needs to consider additional reforms to ensure that the truly violent remain behind bars while awaiting trial while also ensuring that those accused of nonviolent offenses can quickly return to their lives as their case works its way through the system.

New Mexico, New Jersey and Kentucky are among states that have revamped or eliminated cash bail systems, expanded release programs and adopted risk-based pre-trial release assessments. At least 27 other states, the District of Columbia and the federal courts allow detention of high-risk defendants without bond.

In Texas, lawmakers in 2021 passed the much ballyhooed Senate Bill 6 after a repeat offender with a violent criminal history murdered state Trooper Damon Allen shortly after a justice of the peace, who was unaware the killer had a criminal history, released him on bond in a separate case.

The law makes it a bit tougher for certain violent repeat offenders to be released. And while the law also directed judges and magistrates to look at a defendant’s criminal history prior to setting bail, the reality is that risk assessment is an imperfect process that can be improved.

Significant change will require an extensive review and leadership from law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and state lawmakers to better assess risk without violating constitutional protections. The disproportionate effects on underserved communities, on non-violent people who can’t afford bail and may lose jobs and marriages, on jail overcrowding and the inability to keep the truly violent off of the streets deserve thoughtful reconsideration.

The Dallas Morning News