Bail Reform Momentum Builds in Texas and New York

In 2017, a court ruling found that the bail practices of Harris County, Texas, (the county that contains Houston) violated defendant rights. Since then, the county’s Republican misdemeanor judges have been fighting this ruling—a decision that their Democratic challengers like Alex Salgado denounced in the campaign, as Maura Ewing reported in The Appeal. “It cannot be stressed enough that bail reform in Harris County could easily begin with the judges—they could do away with cash bail tomorrow if they chose to do so,” County Commissioner Rodney Ellis told Ewing.

We will now get to how far these candidates are willing to go: Democrats swept all fifteen of the criminal court positions on the ballot, even though all were previously held by Republicans. “Criminal court judges have the discretion to lower the pre-set bail schedule that hearing officers follow, to write policy that mandates the use of non-cash bail, and to show leniency when a person misses a hearing or is late,” Ewing writes. The incoming judges could also agree to settle the lawsuit against the county’s practices, instead of fighting the ruling.

New York State will represent another test of Democratic candidates’ willingness to follow through on promises to overhaul the bail system. The pressure for reform has mounted in New York with cases like that of Kalief Browder, who as a teenager was incarcerated for three years without a trial because his family could not afford the financial conditions set for his release. Reform efforts stalled in the Republican-run state Senate earlier this year.

New York’s legislative landscape changed on Tuesday as Democrats grabbed solid control of the Senate and therefore of the state government. A number of the incoming Democratic senators, including Alessandra Biaggi and Zellnor Myrie in a September interview with The Appeal, have said that they would prioritize cash bail reform upon joining Albany. In February, Senate Minority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins listed cash bail legislation in a trio of reforms Senate Democrats would implement, alongside “comprehensive speedy trial reform” and “requir[ing] comprehensive and automatic discovery.” The Appeal: Political Report will return to the details of New York’s proposed reforms in the future.

In addition, new prosecutors were elected on Tuesday who ran on curbing pretrial detentions. Wesley Bell in St. Louis County, Missouri, Rachael Rollins in Suffolk County, Massachusetts, and John Creuzot in Dallas County, Texas, will come into office on pledges to eliminate cash bail for some offenses or ask for more releases on personal recognizance, which enable people to be released pretrial without owing a payment. Such reforms, if properly implemented, could have a significant impact beyond the rate of pretrial detention. For instance, in Dallas County, defendants charged with marijuana possession were twice as likely to plead guilty if bail conditions were imposed on them.