A group of activists delivered petitions to several Bexar County judges on Thursday calling for the elimination of the use of cash bail or bond for people waiting to appear before a judge. The push for bail reform is a call to help the poor and indigent who are unable to pay bail, which in some cases can be only several hundred dollars or less.
The Texas Organizing Project delivered 25,000 online petitions. A little more than 10 percent of the signatures were from Bexar County residents. About half were from Texas and the rest from other states.
Several activists wore orange jumpsuits – commonly worn by jail inmates – while others held crosses bearing the names of people who have died in jail while awaiting trial.
Laquita Garcia, a campaign manager with TOP, admitted the signatures are largely symbolic but their message should be clear.
“These judges are sitting judges because of the votes they received during the election season, so therefore if they can’t work with the community and work on the issues that the community face every single day then maybe they shouldn’t be in those positions,” she said.
Only the Texas legislature can completely reform the bail system statewide but judges have some limited leeway in decisions on a case-by-case basis.
Texas Public Radio spoke to three county court-at-law judges: Michael De Leon of County Court at Law 7, Rosie Gonzalez of County Court at Law 13, and Carlo Key of County Court at Law 14. Each agreed they had to uphold the law as written.
“We’re very bound by law, we took an oath to follow the law, and if we know what the law is then we have to follow it,” Key said.
Key handles Class A and B misdemeanors cases. The cases sometimes concern offenses like marijuana possession. He said due to state law there are restrictions on what they can do but in some cases the law allows them to grant release.
If a defendant is charged with a Class B misdemeanor, and if the state is not ready for trial in 15 days, then defendants may receive a mandatory personal recognizance bond, or PR bond, according to Article 17.151 in the Texas Criminal Code. The defendant agrees to release terms, like appearing for court, but pay nothing. Those facing Class A misdemeanors can be released after 30 days.
“So we’ve been using that law, and we’ve been looking at those who, at 15 and 30 days, and I’ve been bringing them in and asking the state if they’re prepared for trial, and if they’re not I’m granting them a PR bond,” Key said.
During the first week of March, there were about 160 people in the Bexar County Jail awaiting court appearances and unable to pay bond or bail.
Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar said his office compiles that weekly list of misdemeanor cases where bond is less than $2,500.
“So in theory these people can get out for $250 or less, working on the ten percent principle,” he said.
Salazar said in one case, a man held in jail for marijuana possession for several months could have been released for a small bail. Instead the jail spent more than $9,000 housing him.
“We could have just paid his bail out of taxpayer dollars and the taxpayers would have been coming out ahead of that deal,” Salazar said. “I mean, that’s not going to happen, we’re not set up for that, but in theory it would have just been cheaper to pay these people’s bail somehow.”
Salazar provides the list to Bexar County’s pre-trial services division, the county judges and other county departments.
Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales said in a statement that in the coming weeks his prosecutors will ask magistrate judges to consider PR bonds.
“No one should languish in jail awaiting trial simply because they are too poor to afford a bond. As District Attorney, I have begun to implement policies to ensure that this does not happen. For example, my prosecutors have been instructed to recommend PR bonds in appropriate cases at magistration. This has never been done before in Bexar County,” the statement explained.
The DA’s statement added: “If an arrested person is still in custody after 48 hours, my prosecutors have been instructed to review the case a second time for a possible PR bond recommendation. These new procedures, however, are just the first steps. My staff and I are currently in the process of developing a comprehensive bond policy that will ensure that every arrested person is treated fairly, regardless of their economic status, while maintaining community safety.”
Judges in Harris County recently launched a cash bail reform system that allows “85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds” according to January 2019 report in the Houston Chronicle.
That plan has since been challenged in court by several bail bondsmen in Harris County.