AUSTIN (Nexstar) — After the controversy over the $150,000 bond originally set for 21-year-old Tavores Henderson in the death of Nassau Bay Police Sgt. Kaila Sullivan, Gov. Greg Abbott took to his personal Twitter account saying the bail reform he supported last session would’ve prevented that from happening.
“There should be no bail for cop killers. Period,” Abbott said in a separate tweet. “I’ll propose this law next session.”
Henderson’s bond was eventually revoked. The charge against him was also upgraded to capital murder.
“The law already allows for people who are charged with capital murder to be held without bond,” said Mary Mergler, criminal justice project director at Texas Appleseed. “The law allows for people who are accused of a felony while they’re out on bond with another felony to be held without bond and there’s a number of other circumstances where someone might be held without bond.
Reform advocates like Mergler say the fundamental problem with Texas’ bail system is that whether a person is released from jail often hinges on how much money they have.
“Someone who is dangerous but has enough money to afford their bail will be released from jail pre-trial,” Mergler said. “On the other hand, someone who is low risk and poses no threat to public safety, but who has no money for bail is going to be held in jail until their trial.”
During the 86th Legislature, lawmakers in the Texas House passed House Bill 2020. It was one of the several bail reform bills filed and would’ve required the creation of a bail advisory commission with members from the criminal justice system. Magistrates would’ve needed to use a pretrial risk assessment tool and review a defendant’s criminal history before setting a bail amount.
Some opponents worried the commission didn’t have representation from the bail industry. Others also said it didn’t go far enough to address concerns about those who are unable to pay.
“The real problem that we need to focus on is moving away from a system where cash determines pre-trial release,” Mergler said. “We need a system where judges are making individual determinations about whether someone can safely be released and under what conditions.”
Mergler noted how detrimental a bail amount for a low-risk offender can sometimes be.
“People who pose no threat to public safety are often jailed when they can’t afford their bond,” she said. “Even something as low as $50 or $100. When you’re in jail, even for a few days, you may lose your job, you may lose your housing if you’re not at home to pay your rent, you may not receive your medical or mental health treatment that you’re accustomed to. All of this negatively impacts individuals and their families.”
Ken Good, who works with the Professional Bondsmen of Texas, said the ultimate goal should be accountability.
“I think that it always helps for the judges to have more information to know someone’s criminal history when they’re setting bail,” he said.
But he says he disagrees with some parts of the bail reform conversation.
“We just do one thing well,” he said. “That is to get people out of jail and to get them to come to court.”
“Where the problem arises is when you try to use bail reform to address other societal ills — we have a drug issue, we have schools failing, we have lost opportunities on jobs and we have an increase in drop out rate — those issues are real, they need to be addressed but you can’t address those in bail reform,” he added.
House Bill 2020 never made it out of the Texas Senate. There’s no specific proposal yet over what Gov. Abbott is supporting, but he plans to work with legislators over the next year before they meet again in 2021.