Senate Bill 6 cleared a legislative hurdle in the Texas House Friday night. Credit: Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

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A sweeping revision of the process for releasing accused criminals on bail won initial approval from the Texas House on Friday night, nearly three months after the GOP-priority legislation stalled in the regular legislative session.

Senate Bill 6, which would require people accused of violent crimes to put up cash to get out of jail, tentatively passed the House on an 82-37 party line vote. The Senate passed the legislation earlier this month on a 27-2 vote.

A House committee advanced the bill Monday after taking out a controversial provision that would have restricted charitable groups from posting bail for defendants, a practice that gained popularity last summer when groups posted bail to release people arrested while protesting the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by a white Minneapolis police officer.

On Friday, House members added a related provision back into the bill that does not limit the ability of such groups to post bail. Instead, the amendment would require charitable bail funds to be certified by county officials as nonprofit organizations and file reports on who they bond out of jail.

“The original bill that came over [from the Senate] was essentially going to outlaw … the charitable bail process,” said state Rep. Travis Clardy, R-Nacogdoches, on his amendment. “We made it very clear to the other side of the building that this would not stand.”

The bill still needs to pass the House a final time before it is sent back to the Senate, which can either accept the House changes or enter into closed-door negotiations. State Sen. Joan Huffman, the Houston Republican who authored the bill, did not respond to questions about House changes this week.

SB 6 would change how and if people can be released from jail before their criminal cases are resolved, while they are still legally presumed innocent. Currently, the ability of a defendant to post cash determines most Texas jail releases, but some jurisdictions — particularly in Harris County after losses in federal court — have recently shifted to releasing more people accused of low-level crimes without requiring money. The bill, in part, would limit when people without cash could be released

Some parts of the bill are widely supported, such as requiring judicial training, collecting data and requiring officials to look at a defendant’s criminal history before setting bail.

But, civil rights advocates and some Democrats have fought against other significant portions of the legislation which they argue will lead to discrimination against poor people and people of color, including the provision on charitable bail.

The bill would ban the release of those accused of violent crimes on personal bonds, which don’t require cash but can include restrictions like GPS ankle monitoring or routine drug testing. Civil rights advocates have argued the exclusion of only cashless bonds will exacerbate wealth-based detention and lead to overfilled jails.

Gov. Greg Abbott and other Republicans, along with crime victims and their supporters, have pushed for the bail legislation, saying it is needed to keep dangerous people behind bars before their trials. They have pointed to rising crime rates and numerous examples of defendants accused of violent crimes being released on bond and then accused of new crimes.

In at least several of the examples noted by bill supporters, the defendants were released from jail after paying a bail bonds company or giving cash to the court — practices that wouldn’t be limited under the bill.

“This bill isn’t going to prevent all crime. It’s not going to prevent individuals from committing crimes if they do make a bond,” Huffman said before the Senate vote this month. “But it will give trained magistrates and judges all the information that they need to use their judicial discretion to make what we hope will be appropriate bond decisions.”

SB 6 opponents have argued the bill would wrongly increase the state’s reliance on cash bail, noting that restricting personal bonds primarily penalizes low-income people, limits judicial power and would boost the for-profit bail bonds industry.

“Taking away judicial discretion is not a good thing,” said state Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, Friday. “You don’t get to unelect the bail bond industry.”

Multiple federal courts in recent years have found bail practices in Texas’ two largest counties unconstitutionally discriminatory against poor people. And civil rights groups involved in those lawsuits sent a letter to officials in all of Texas’ 254 counties earlier this month warning that similar litigation could follow SB 6’s passage.

“Because personal bonds are the only path to release from jail for people without access to money, sections 6 and 7 [of the bill] prohibit judges from releasing large categories of people who cannot afford to pay bail,” the letter said. “This infringement on judicial discretion will not make communities safer. It will, however, violate the rights of tens of thousands of people — disproportionately poor, Black and brown people — every year.”

The Republican-driven legislation has been a priority for the governor for years, and he deemed the measure an emergency in the regular legislative session that ended in May. But a similar bill was killed by a deadline and the House Democrats’ initial walk-out to block the GOP voting bill. After Abbott called lawmakers back to again address conservative priorities like voting and bail, Democrats skipped town for weeks shortly after the House and Senate committees voted out both bills.

Last week, about halfway through a second special legislative session, enough Democrats were marked present for the legislation to finally progress.

Shortly before voting on SB 6, a paired resolution was advanced but appeared unlikely to fully pass the House after a 82-34 vote. The resolution, which in a final vote will require approval from two-thirds of the House — or 99 members, would ask Texas voters in the May election if judges could deny releasing from jail on any type of bail — cash or personal — defendants accused of high-level violent and sexual crimes.

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