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SAY NO! to Senate Bill 1338

Stacie Rumenap, Guest columnist  7:03 pm ET April 30, 2017

(Photo: Stephen Gosling)

Texas legislators are debating sharply scaling back the role of bail bonds in our judicial system, and replacing
the bail system with a computer program that allegedly calculates the risk of a defendant committing another
offense while awaiting trial.
Lawmakers who support this concept argue that these “risk assessment tools” will be fairer to the poor and
indigent who often cannot afford to raise bail or pay fees to a bonding agent. Under the legislation, there will
be a broad use of release on personal recognizance.
I share legislators’ concern for the poor. But the substitution of blind algorithms for the judgment of seasoned
judges raises other concerns.
Who is examining the impact of these changes on victims of sexual assault? Debate on that point is
nonexistent. Yet we know the use of risk assessment tools and widespread release of defendants without bail
raises questions about public safety.
Victims of sexual assault, more so 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 the defendant is released into the community and fails to return for court. This is
made worse if the defendant commits another crime, becoming what law enforcement officers call a “frequent flier” offender.
Holding abusers accountable is a necessary component of the criminal justice system, and is paramount to the victim’s healing process.
Victims need assurances that their abuser will show up in court. Money bail provides greater assurance. Bonding agents, lawyers and family are
united in assuring that a released prisoner will make his court date.
Now Texas legislators are considering bills, notably Senate Bill 1338 by Sen. John Whitmire, DHouston,
and House Bill 3011 by Rep. Andrew Murr, RJunction,
that permit bail to be set in some circumstances but give preference to personal bonds in most cases. This occurs even in circumstances
where a defendant has failed to appear before.
Such a measure removes the ability of victims to be heard because defendants too often fail to appear and existing governmental resources to return
them to court are already overstressed.
It’s likely that the policies contained in the bill will result in a revolving door of released defendants who will continue to either victimize members of
communities or who will fail to return to court, thus barring the victim from being heard and delaying the healing process.
Of equal concern is the proposed legislation’s reliance on a risk assessment tool. While a more informed release decision is a laudable policy goal, the
use of risk assessment tools in preference to judicial discretion has proven to be unsuccessful for victims.
Most notably, recently a convicted sex offender in New Jersey was released from jail, based on the recommendation of a risk assessment tool, after
allegedly committing another offense.
Fortunately, the state prosecutor convinced a judge to detain this defendant, but so great was the concern of law enforcement and victims groups that
they joined in making a community announcement about the man’s release.
All of this occurred because a risk assessment tool did not classify him as a great risk.
If conditions are to be imposed in addition to bail, then the conditions must be meaningful: there must be swift, certain and absolute response to a
defendant’s violation. Waiting several days for a summons to return merely provides notice for the defendant to flee, and a victim to be at risk.
Properly using bail as defined currently under Texas law assures that a defendant returns to court and a victim’s voice may be heard. While no one
should be insensitive to the concern that indigent persons may be held in jails unnecessarily, sacrificing public safety isn’t the answer