Op-Ed: Houston City Councilman Says Texas Can’t Afford to Give Criminals a Get Out of Jail Free Card

Op-Ed: Houston City Councilman Says Texas Can’t Afford to Give Criminals a Get Out of Jail Free Card

Reprinted from the Houston Chronicle – By Michael Kubosh

As a Houston city councilman, I go to work each day with a mandate to protect taxpayers and ensure our city government is held accountable. I am also one of thousands of Texas bail agents who put their safety and capital on the line each day to keep criminals off the streets – all without expense to taxpayers.

But the fate of this system hangs in balance as so-called “bail reform” is implemented around the state, including here in Harris County.

Almost all Texas counties rely on the cash bail system to release defendants. Yet a federal judge recently singled out this practice in Harris County, ruling it unconstitutional and ordering the release of most misdemeanor defendants from jail within 24 hours – an unreasonably short amount of time to properly vet their backgrounds. This forces law enforcement to release criminals on “sheriff’s bonds,” which allow defendants to leave jail without payment after simply promising to return for their court date.

Recently, Harris County also became one of the few adopters of something called a risk assessment tool, a computer algorithm designed to predict the likelihood of a defendant to fail to appear in court or commit offenses while they’re out of jail.

These tools have led to a drastic uptick in the number of defendants released. Some assessed as low risk by these tools and then released go on to commit very violent crimes, forcing us to ask, where did the algorithm go wrong?

Such a phenomenon is already occurring in other areas that have implemented bail reform. For example, law enforcement officials in New Jersey say some criminals released this way are bragging to them that they’ll be back on the street in a matter of hours.

Is that really the route Texas wants to go? Unfortunately, our own public safety crisis is already underway.

Just this past October in Harris County, a father of a two-week-old baby boy was arrested and jailed for assault after his girlfriend, the new mother, reported his abuse to law enforcement.

After swearing he couldn’t come up with the $5,000 needed to post bail, he was released on an unsecured bond. His girlfriend, a longtime Houston Independent School District elementary school teacher, was found dead just days later.

And in Austin, 19-year-old Xavier Lewis was out of jail on two felony personal recognizance bonds when he went on an aggravated robbery spree, shooting two people and killing a woman on Christmas Day.

These are just two of many instances in which bail reform policies have put our loved ones’ lives at risk. For too long we’ve stood idly by while a revolving door for criminals has been installed in our jails, delaying justice, endangering our communities and traumatizing victims. Bail reform is an imminent public safety threat, and it’s a waste of Texans’ tax dollars.

Without a money bail system, the gigantic cost of these reforms will inevitably trickle down to taxpayers. Some residents in New Jersey already are facing millions in tax hikes as a result of bail reform. In Harris County, defendants who are out on personal or sheriff’s bonds and fail to appear in court cost taxpayers approximately $34,000 per day, or around $12.5 million a year.

Bondsmen, operating at no cost to the public, supervise defendants and capture fugitives. If a defendant skips their court hearing, rest assured there is a bondsman out there tracking them down. Without bondsmen, more government workers will need to be hired to fill that void. Even then, unseasoned, ill-equipped bureaucrats will lack any personal incentive to track down dangerous fugitives.

The state of Texas is at a crossroads. We can either identify solutions to improve upon a trusted bail system that has worked for generations, or we can empower criminals to game the justice system.

Kubosh is an at-large council member representing the entire city of Houston.

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