SAN ANTONIO — County officials this week called on criminal county court judges to lead the charge on sweeping bail reform at the misdemeanor level.
Administrative district court judge Ron Rangel – with support from Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales, County Judge Nelson Wolff and Chief Public Defender Michael Young – wrote a letter to criminal county court judges Monday imploring them to endorse bail practices similar to those currently in effect in Harris County.
Under the Harris County model, certain individuals charged with non-violent misdemeanors would automatically be granted a personal recognizance bond, allowing them to be released from jail without paying a dime.
Young said he believes the policy would make the city safer due to the fact that commercial bonds, where an individual pays approximately 10% of their total bail to a private bond company, have fewer strings attached.
"I think there’s a misconception among the public that if somebody can pay $200 to get out of jail, the public is somehow safer than somebody who got out on a personal bond and that’s just not the case,” Young said. “If you can pay $200 and get out of jail, you don’t have to be drug tested, you don’t have to report to pretrial once a week, you don’t have to be checked on consistently. If you’re out on a personal bond, you have to do all those things."
The model stems from a settlement after Harris County was sued over its bail practices.
"When an individual who is arrested for a non-violent misdemeanor offense without certain conditions that have been approved in Harris county, that person should be out on a no-cash bail," Rangel said, adding that the "inability to pay for a bond should not keep somebody in custody.”
Rangel and Young said that, if enacted, the impact would be massive, preventing a large number of inmates from being incarcerated at the Bexar County Jail. Texas Commission on Jail Standards records show that, of the approximately 4,000 inmates at the Bexar County Jail, nearly 330 are incarcerated for a misdemeanor.
"When someone gets arrested for murder, it makes it on the news. When someone gets arrested for aggravated assault or sexual assault, those high level violent crimes are reported in the news,” Young said. “60,000 people a year get arrested in Bexar County. Almost all of those are non-violent. It's actually rare when someone is arrested for one of those violent high-profile crimes.”
The policy is in alignment with Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar’s view that only dangerous individuals should be incarcerated.
“As sheriff, I support any and all efforts to make appropriate use of our jail space,” Salazar said. "Jails are for dangerous individuals who society is afraid of, not for low level nonviolent misdemeanors. Jails should not be used for criminalizing poverty, homelessness or mental illness.”
Since taking office in 2019, Gonzales has also prioritized bail reform, supporting and leading initiatives including cite-and-release, the rejection of certain criminal trespass cases, and non-prosecution of certain drug cases.
"Before I took office, I saw the need for comprehensive bail reform in Bexar County,” Gonzales said. "I have continued to advocate for a system that doesn’t punish individuals who are accused of non-violent crimes by forcing them to languish in jail until their cases are resolved. I applaud the steps taken by Judge Rangel in encouraging our local County Court at Law judges to follow the Harris County model.”
Administrative county court judge John Longoria said while he's open to bail reform, the Harris County model may overreach.
"We don't make the laws,” Longoria said. “We have to enforce them and work with them as judges do."
Longoria said he and his fellow county court judges have been proactive in their push for personal recognizance bonds for more than 1,600 inmates in the last year alone, adding that any changes made to bond practices would have to come from the agencies overseeing magistrate proceedings—city council and the district court judges.
“I would suggest to them that they be careful,” Longoria said, referring to the possibility that officials would ask magistrate judges to automatically grant personal recognizance bonds.
"Legally speaking, there's even rulings by the Commission on Judicial Conduct that say that we must follow the law and we cannot order a magistrate to grant a bond or deny a bond,” Longoria added. "That's a violation of the law. Simple."
Young, however, challenged the idea.
"I've heard some people say, ‘Well, we're not sure if it's legal or constitutional.' And I would remind those people that the federal district court has looked at it and said, ‘This is legal. This is constitutional.' The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals has looked at it and said, 'This is legal. This is constitutional.’”
Young and Rangel said the change is feasible and actionable almost immediately. Longoria said Wednesday county court judges had drafted a response to Rangel’s letter and were planning on delivering the response this week.