The Texas Senate approved a proposal on Monday to allow voters to decide whether to allow judges to deny bail outright in a wider variety of cases, a change aimed at locking up more defendants accused of violent crimes pending trial.
Under the proposed constitutional amendment, judges could deny bail for murder defendants and a handful of “aggravated” crimes: kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault and assault with a deadly weapon. It would also apply to defendants accused of repeated human trafficking offences.
For now, the Texas Constitution generally grants defendants the right to bail unless they are charged with capital murder or meet certain criteria for repeated violent crime.
The measure, known as Senate Joint Resolution 44, passed by 30 votes to 1. It now heads to the House, where it will need the support of two-thirds of the House to be placed on November’s statewide ballot.
State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who wrote the resolution, said it would serve as a “tool for judges to use in extreme situations.” Under the proposal, judges could deny bail only if they found “clear and convincing” evidence that doing so was necessary to “reasonably ensure” a defendant’s appearance in court or the safety of the community.
Republicans have made their version of bail reform a priority in recent campaigns and legislative sessions, arguing tougher laws are needed to curb the rise in the number of defendants, particularly in Harris County, charged with new crimes while they were on probation. State GOP leaders have placed most of the blame on local Democratic judges, whom they accuse of setting overly lenient bail terms.
Earlier versions of Huffman’s constitutional amendment failed to cross the two-thirds threshold in the House two years ago, when the Legislature last met. The lower house gave initial approval to an earlier version in the spring of 2021, but it died on the final day of the session when Democrats fled the Capitol to counter a Republican-backed bill.
As in previous sessions, Huffman’s latest proposal won broad bipartisan support in the Senate, with all but one of the 12 House Democrats voting on it on Monday.
House Democrats have been more reluctant to embrace the idea, arguing that previous versions applied to an overly broad range of crimes. Republicans will need to bring in about a dozen House Democrats to get the measure across to voters.
State Sen. Borris Miles D-Houston said Monday he agreed that judges should be allowed to deny bail to “defendants who pose dangerous threats to our communities,” but feared the changes would” would fall heavily on Black and Brown communities.”
“I’m just concerned, Madam President, that we’re turning the clock backwards,” Miles, whose district is 77 percent black and Hispanic residents, told Huffman on the Senate floor.
Huffman argued that the measure “would hit a wealthy person just as it would hit a low-income person,” because a judge “cannot hold any person without bonds” who meets the criteria set out in the amendment.
The measure goes beyond a bail overhaul Huffman passed in 2021, Senate Bill 6, which sets limits only for free and low-cost bonds, meaning those who can afford to post bail can still do so, while only those without enough money is forced to stay behind bars.
State Senator Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a McAllen Democrat who co-authored the constitutional amendment, also noted that it requires judges and magistrates to “impose the least restrictive conditions, if any, necessary.”
However, opponents of the amendment say it would prompt more defendants to plead guilty to avoid the risk of lengthy pre-trial detention.
Lauren Rosales, operations manager at The Bail Project, a group that advocates ending cash bail, said the measure would allow judges to deny bail “simply if they believe a person might miss a court date.”
“Missed court appearances can be inconvenient, but they are not reason enough to keep a person in jail, away from their families, jobs and communities,” Rosales said, adding that most missed court appearances are “unintentional” and result from “sudden illnesses”. ,” “inevitable work obligations” and other factors.
Huffman said his proposed amendment would not allow judges to deny bail in such circumstances.
“I just can’t imagine a judge issuing a written order, stating, ‘I find from clear and convincing evidence that the defendant must be held without bond because he missed the bus once,'” Huffman said. “I mean, this is subject to appeal, and this is not a rational analysis of the bill.”