Criminal justice reform is a uniting issue for America, seemingly the only thing bringing together leadership from both sides of the aisle. And while we can all agree that reforms are needed to address some of the challenges of administering justice fairly and efficiently, we also need to remain united in our commitment to ensuring victims of crime are safe and receive the justice they deserve.
That’s why it’s alarming that Texas is considering implementing algorithm-based bail reforms that take away decision-making authority from elected judges and put it into the hands of computer programs. These very same policies have failed to keep communities safe in other states, leading to tragic consequences for too many families.
We don’t have to look far to see how these policies are failing. In Harris County, algorithm-based reforms were initially sold as a way to keep poor people from languishing in jail. A noble cause worthy of attention and action.
Yet today, Harris County is releasing 85 percent of misdemeanor defendants on personal recognizance. That means all a defendant has to do is sign his or her name and promise to show for court. The defendant is free to walk out of jail with no accountability while the victim is left wondering what happens next. Worse, there are new proposals in Harris County to expand these policies to felony defendants as well.
We saw the near deadly consequences of these policies just last month, when a criminal who went on an armed robbery spree in Pasadena was twice released on personal recognizance by the Harris County Court. This is despite being arrested for unlawful possession of a weapon, aggravated robbery and aggravated assault of a police officer.
How can Harris County officials justify allowing this dangerous criminal back on the streets time and again?
The policies Harris County has implemented are no longer simply about keeping poor people out of jail. They completely ignore the fact that many who are arrested require supervision, monitoring and a support system to ensure they will appear for court dates and won’t slip into a pattern of crimes. Now the Legislature is debating enacting similar policies statewide.
A criminal justice system that elevates criminal defendants over considerations of victims and public safety is no criminal justice system at all. It’s simply a revolving door that allows criminals to continue to terrorize their victims and our communities, and in many cases evade court dates and responsibility for their actions.
I speak with victims’ families on a daily basis. I know firsthand that victims of crime need assurance that their abusers will be held accountable in court. In Harris County, nearly 40 percent of those released on unsecured bonds failed to reappear for court. Why? Because there isn’t a way to hold these criminals accountable.
Victims of sexual assault, more than other crime victims, are often too afraid to come forward. They are unable to speak up about something so very personal and horrific. When victims do come forward, their courage is eviscerated when defendants are released — without consequence — into the community. Their courage is further exasperated when the defendant fails to appear for court. And yet made even worse if the defendant commits another crime.
Put yourself in a victim’s shoes and imagine living in a world where your offender is out of jail, roaming the streets with no culpability and little supervision from law enforcement. Imagine that this happened because your state passed policies that allow this criminal to roam free, despite ample proof that those policies have had disastrous consequences across the country.
Victims deserve a better, more accountable criminal justice system than algorithm-based bail reform can provide. Texas leaders should unite to give them the justice and safety they deserve.
Stacie Rumenap is a board member for the Texas Alliance for Safe Communities.