Council passes resolution aiming to end money bonds for Travis Co. residents who can’t pay

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Austin (KXAN) — Austin City Council passed a resolution Thursday that aims to end money bonds based on a person’s ability to pay.

“This resolution is about having the discussion about how the system affects our black and brown community,” said Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza, who sponsored the resolution.

The resolution relates to how Austin Municipal Court judges administer justice — and ending what council members call “wealth-based detention” in Travis County.

Criminal justice advocates in Travis County have long pointed to the ways that people of color are disproportionately represented in the county’s criminal justice system.

Garza sponsored the resolution along with Council members and co-sponsors Greg Casar, Jimmy Flannigan, and Natasha Harper-Madison.

Garza, also a candidate in the Travis County Attorney runoff race, acknowledged that may parts of this resolution are “aspirational” and that Council knows it can’t tell judges to do.

All council members voted for the resolution with the exception of Council Member Leslie Pool who abstained from the vote. CM Pool did make friendly amendments to the resolution which were adopted.

CM Pool sent KXAN the following statement about this vote:

“I am fully supportive of the aspirations expressed in the resolution, especially as an extension of the established history of restorative justice that our Travis County partners have embraced over the past several decades. I want to highlight in particular the efforts of our steadfast advocate of criminal justice reform (and a respected friend), former District Attorney Ronnie Earle, who just recently passed.

So, while I support the aspirations, I prefer the more collaborative effort that is already underway and in which the City has been involved. I am grateful to the Mayor Pro Tem Garza for accepting my additions that recognize the existing county and city work groups already formed, and that call for a financial analysis of the costs of implementing the resolution’s suggestions.”

The resolution explains that City of Austin Municipal Court Judges conduct magistration hearings at the central booking facility of the Travis County criminal justice system. The resolution also says that under current procedures anyone who cannot afford the secured bail amount and who is not released on a personal bond will remain detained in the Travis County Jail.

The resolution states, “pretrial detention separates people from their families, communities, and livelihoods, and research shows that even short stays in jail destabilize families, increase recidivism rates, and lead to an increase in new charges.”

The resolution calls for a number of other measures including the presence of legal counsel at magistration hearings.

A number of community organizations including Texas Appleseed, Austin Justice Coalition, Just Liberty, and the Texas Fair Defense Project expressed support for this item.

Amanda Woog with the Texas Fair Defense Project believes this resolution will help ensure that, “people who have not been convicted are entitled to the presumption of innocence.”

“People should only be detained pre-trial if they pose an immediate public safety risk or have a high risk of fleeing,” she continued.

Additionally, Woog said this resolution is, “about creating a record for why people are being detained on cash bail and that is not happening at all right now.” She added that it will help guarantee things like assuring that people who have been arrested will have the opportunity to be heard during magistration hearings.

“We can’t assume that people are complying with the constitution, and from what we’ve observed in its not constitutionally compliant in Travis County,” Woog said. “I have not observed bail hearings where people have been offered an opportunity to speak to their ability or inability to receive a bond in Travis County.”

Travis County leaders did not receive the idea of this resolution as warmly. On Thursday, Council’s agenda was updated with a letter from Roger Jefferies, the Travis County executive overseeing Justice Planning, who wrote on Wednesday, “It is unfortunate that various County stakeholders were not consulted before this proposed resolution was developed.”

Jefferies calls the resolution incomplete, adding “while not suggesting that it was intentionally misleading, the resolution does not account for work already being done to reduce incarceration.”

He brings up 2018 statistics which show that out of the 30,832 bookings in the Travis County Jail, 67% or 20,678 were booked on a Travis County charge and had no external hold. He adds that of those, 71% of those booked on only local criminal charge were released on a personal recognizance bond.

Jefferies also questioned how the city would pay for having legal counsel at all magistration hearings. He estimates that the cost for defense counsel alone is $2.1 million and that when factoring in the cost of prosecutors the estimated cost would exceed $4.1 million.

He also noted that on April 8, 2019, the Travis County Jail population was 2,123, a number he said was “historically low.” On April 8, 2019, the Travis County Jail population is 1,626 a 30% reduction from the year prior.

“While some of this immediate dramatic drop has taken place following the implementation of the COVID-19 mitigation strategies, much of the historic drop in the jail population over the last several years has been a result of some very robust and creative strategies initiated by the County, often in partnership with the City,” Jefferies said.

He closed off his letter stating, “both the County and City, along with our community partners, have historically worked often in tandem to reduce unnecessary arrests, incarceration, and to provide needed services. Unfortunately, the spirit and letter of the resolution currently does not reflect that reality.”

At the council meeting Thursday, Garza referenced Jefferies comments, saying that she thinks the fact that there was so much substance to his memo indicates there is a problem when it comes to the bail system and equity in Travis County.

Garza said the response from the county “felt like a very defensive response to the work we are trying to continue.”

“If in fact the county’s numbers are correct and it’s going to cost $4 million dollars to provide representation to people in magistration,” Garza said. “If a court decides it is someone’s constitutional right to have representation at their magistration, it is incumbent on the city to cover that cost.”

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