AUSTIN (Nexstar) — The Texas Senate passed a constitutional amendment 30-1 Monday that would deny bail for those facing violent or sexual charges, as part of Republicans’ larger push around bail reform after campaigning on promises of “tough-on-crime’ policies.
If eventually approved by voters, SJR 44 would authorize judges to deny bail “under some circumstances” to a person accused of a “violent or sexual offense or of continuous trafficking of persons.” The resolution’s author, Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said during floor debate that her legislation would give local officials needed tools for making bail determinations.
“This is just one of the tools in the toolbox that we’re trying to create to make our community safer,” she said. “It’d be in judicial discretion, but it is a tool in the most extreme cases, when individuals have shown that they need to be away from the public while they are awaiting their trial.”
Currently, the Texas Constitution has little exceptions for cases in which judges can deny bail outright. Defendants have the right to a release before their trial unless they are charged with capital murder or have repeated charges for violent offenses.
The resolution would expand judges or magistrates’ ability to deny bail, outlining they could do so for those accused of murder and other “aggravated” charges like kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault and assault with a deadly weapon, as well as those facing charges for repeated human trafficking offenses.
Huffman’s proposal outlines judges would need to present “clear and convincing” evidence that denying bail is necessary in order to ensure safety to the community or the defendant’s future appearance in court.
During the floor debate, Sen. Borris Miles, D-Houston, expressed concern that this measure might have disparate affects on communities of color in Texas.
“Historically, we’ve seen it. We’ve lived through it. We’ve worked our way through it so that we can do better,” he said. “I’m just concerned…that we’re turning the hands of the clock backwards.”
The legislation has garnered bipartisan support, with additional sponsorship from Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen. A similar proposal passed in the Senate during the 2021 legislative session, but House members did not obtain the necessary two-thirds majority support to pass it.
Other opponents have expressed concern that this could violate Texans’ due process rights or lead to higher rates of incarceration.
Chris Harris, policy director for the Austin Justice Coalition, aruges it could lead to more Texans pleading guilty to crimes in order to avoid long periods of time behind bars before their trial.
Harris also said he worries this will not help the overburdened jail systems, that can post unsafe conditions for inmates.
“We fear that vastly expanding judicial power to keep people incarcerated — before their trial, while they’re presumed innocent —will result in many, many more people across the state of Texas being incarcerated,” he said. “This is this is a dangerous legislation, in our view.”
Other state leaders like Gov. Greg Abbott have pointed to a rising number of defendants charged with additional crimes while out on bond, specifically in Harris County, as reasons for prioritizing bail reform and other measures Republicans say will increase public safety.
“I signed a bail reform law last session to try to strengthen bail policies but to make sure that we achieve what we needed to achieve, we also needed to amend the Texas Constitution,” Abbott said last September.
The resolution will now head over to the House, where it died last session. Rep. Reggie Smith, R-Sherman, is carrying a companion version of SJR 44 in the House. It will need two-thirds of the lower chamber’s support before heading to the ballot for voters to ultimately decide on in November.