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Texas House Passes Bill Making It Harder To Bond Out Of Jail

A sign for a bail bond business is shaped like a bell -- white background with blue letters spelling "North Main Bail Bond."
Lucio Vasquez
Houston Public Media
Located near Minute Maid Park, "North Main Bail Bond" is one of many locations of its kind in downtown Houston. Taken on Oct. 17, 2019.

The Texas House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill that would make it harder for people to bond out of jail before trial.

House Bill 20, also known as the Damon Allen Act, passed the House 98-46.

The measure, which Gov. Greg Abbott had declared an emergency item for the session, had bipartisan support, and included amendments by a number of Democratic members.

Republican state Rep. Andrew Murr of Junction — the bill's author and chair of the House Corrections Committee — appeared in summarizing the bill to address earlier Democratic concerns that the bill might discriminate against indigent defendants, particularly people of color.

"Our policy goal can be distilled down to a basic premise that it is important to better assess defendants to ensure that those arrested for violent crimes and having...violent criminal backgrounds don't easily make bond and end up right back in our communities," Murr said, "while on the other hand, low-risk and first-time offenders receive the least restrictive means of a bond that can get them back to their jobs, their families, and thereby reduce the financial burdens on our counties."

Much of the discussion of the bill took place between Murr and Democratic state Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, who said Collier said helped go “line by line” to flesh out a bill that addressed their concerns.

The bill as passed included 10 amendments, half of them authored by Democrats. Among them was an amendment by State Representative Terry Canales, D-Edinburg, which would allow indigent defendants to fill out an affidavit stating they can’t pay the full bail amount, and declaring the maximimum amount the person can pay.

Another amendment, authored by state Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, dealt with aggravated promotion of prostitution. As written, Johnson said, the original measure could be applied, "against both the exploited and the exploiter."

"This amendment just clarifies that the victim exploited is being removed from the restriction," she said.

Johnson ended up voting against the final bill.

The final amendment, by state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, seemed further aimed at protecting indigent defendants.

Under existing law, Wu said, clerks can seize a portion of a defendant's cash bond for fees even if the defendant is found not guilty or the case against them is dismissed.

"This amendment would basically just say, hey, if you're found not guilty, or if your case is outright dismissed, you get the entirety of your money back without the clerks taking a chunk of it," Wu said. "It only seems right that you're not punished for being not guilty."

Wu’s amendment was accepted, though the lawmaker voted against HB 20 Tuesday.