The Damon Allen Act, bail reform bill HB-2020, has just been passed by the Texas House. House Bill 2020 is just one of many measures taken to reform the bail bond industry after several events drew state-wide attention.
Bail reform efforts in Texas were prompted after state trooper Damon Allen was killed by a repeat-offender out on bail, among other events drawing concern. These include jail deaths and court rulings, which brought attention to Texas jail practices and pretrial processes.
Inmates’ Rights in Question
A recent addition to the bail reform bill was effectively removed by Texas lawmakers on May 10, 2019. This last-minute addition would have restricted who could be released from jail, potentially harming the rights of many inmates and defendants in Texas.
This last-minute addition to the Damon Allen Act bail reform bill would have kept more people in jail before their trial. Of course, this drew concern over the rights of inmates and garnered state-wide backlash. Outrage over inmates’ rights prompted Texas lawmakers to remove the amendment before passing it. State Representative Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth is to thank for the removal of the harmful amendment to the bail reform bill.
“Adding that amendment from yesterday does not fit in line to what the purpose of this bill was for. We want to promote the release of these nonviolent defendants who are low income, and not let dangerous people who can afford to pay for bail out.” —Nicole Collier, D-Fort Worth
Bail Reform in Texas
House Bill 2020 is the most prominent of several bail reform measures in 2019 alone. The author of the bill, State Representative Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, worked with Texas Governor Greg Abbott to bring about the bail reform measure. However, it has changed significantly since it was first filed in March.
One of the main changes is that it no longer placed the power of systemic bail changes with the governor. Despite attempts, a spokesperson for Greg Abbott did not respond to repeated requests for a statement about the bill.
What Bail Reform Means for Texas Inmates
Currently, inmate bail is set by judges across Texas. Bail is determined by the crime and the criminal, as well as the Texas bail schedule. In order to get out of jail, defendants must pay their bail or get a bail bond. Currently, a bail bond is only 10 percent of the total bail, allowing inmates to get out of jail at a more affordable cost.
Bail reform is completely different. While bail reform states that it wants low-risk people to get out of jail without paying anything, it means something completely different for many. With bail reform, certain inmates won’t have the ability to get out of jail—at all. Bail reform assesses each detained person’s “risk-level” and determines whether or not they’re eligible to get out of jail.
According to Greg Abbott, he wants to make it as difficult as possible for “dangerous” people to get out of jail. While in theory this sounds like common sense, it can potentially lead to unjust detainment practices. Bias and discrimination, as well as an imperfect risk assessment system, are feared possibilities if bail reform passes the Senate.
Potential Problems With Bail Reform
Individuals and lawmakers have raised concerns about the risk assessment system. Many fear it will produce biased results toward minorities and people of color. For instance, people claim that the tool’s analysis of criminal history may perpetuate current racial inequalities in the criminal justice system.
Having said that, an amendment recently added to the bill requires the risk assessment tool prove it is unbiased. Additionally, it allows counties to alter or modify the tool if any issues or concerns arise.
Concerns Over the Risk Assessment Tool
The Texas Fair Defense Project, a criminal justice advocacy group, raised concerns over the bail reform bill’s risk assessment tool. They state that the bill’s risk assessment would actually prevent judges from releasing most misdemeanor defendants.
While the bill requires increased training for certain judicial officers setting bail, it does not address concerns regarding the potential upholding of existing bias.
Damon Allen was a Texas Department of Public Safety Trooper killed in 2017. He was killed by a repeat-offender out on a $15,500 bond for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy. Kacal and Abbott both named the bail reform bill in his honor.
The bill, written by Kacal and Abbott, would also create a temporary Bail Advisory Commission. This commission would establish a risk assessment tool to determine how likely a defendant is to skip their court date—or pose a threat to the public.
The bail reform bill passed the Texas House by an 83-to-51 vote. The bill will now move to the Senate for deliberation.