Texas lawmakers tackle statewide jail reform

Texas lawmakers are trying to find the best way to determine who should stay in jail and who should be released while awaiting trial without monetary bail.

Bail reform is part of the larger push for criminal justice reform that’s sweeping the nation.

It's come home to North Texas with federal judges declaring the bail systems in Galveston, Harris and Dallas County are unconstitutional. That means what’s in place now is unfair in all 254 counties.

Public policymakers at all levels are working to find the best way to identify people who should get out of jail without being a threat to public safety.

How to get low-level non-violent offenders who can't afford traditional cash bail out of jail faster is one of the issues before lawmakers this session following ACLU lawsuits against several Texas counties calling their bail systems unconstitutional.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation is holding a primer on two bail reform bills before lawmakers. Both call for the creation of a uniform pre-release assessment tool all judges would use in determining bond.

“Eighty percent of the judges who responded to the survey, these are magistrates doing this every day, 80% responded that they ‘use their gut feeling to set bail’ and that they do not believe their decisions are contributing to public safety,” explained David Slayton, Executive Director of the Texas Judicial Council.

The judicial council is the policy-making body for Texas judges.

“So what the judges responded to us in mass is what they are needing most of all is more information about the risk of the defendant,” Slayton said. “And so enter what we call the Pretrial Risk Assessment Information System. The short term is PRAIS Texas.”

PRAIS Texas would consider factors about the defendant’s history to predict the risk of reoffending or fleeing in most Texas counties not part of a bond hearing.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price says Dallas County has already made changes under a federal mandate. Right now, those arrested must have bond hearings within 48 hours of going to jail instead of 10 days to two weeks.

“Dallas county right now, it’s up to the judges to decide what risk assessment tool that they are going to utilize,” Price explained.

Dallas County now has a pre-trial release system using the Ohio Risk Assessment System, or ORAS, to decide who gets out without having to post a monetary bond.

While more are being released, Price is concerned about whether they will show up for court and the potential impact to public safety.

“Those are still my looming concerns,” he said.