HARRIS COUNTY, TX — BREAKING: SB 1318, which proposes hot topic new bail reform measures, is a key bill on Tuesday’s House calendar. Today, May 23, is the last day for Senate legislation to reach the House floor for debate.
Under current legislation, Harris County magistrates routinely release defendants charged with Felons in Possession of a Weapon- Gun (FPW-GUN) every month on personal bonds, at grave expense to public safety. SB 1318, if passed by House delegation, will ban no-cost and personal recognizance bonds for FPW-GUN offenders.
“[This bill] is kind of an all-encompassing bill that takes what happened last session, with SB 6, and consolidates what was left out,” said Andy Kahan, Victim Services and Advocacy Director for Crime Stoppers of Houston and retired HPD officer.
“For example, take the issue of felons in possession of a firearm. Currently, they’re allowed to get a PR bond. Right now, every month, 30 to 40 felons are charged a month with FPW-GUN. This bill will end that.”
State Sen. Joan Huffman (R), of District 17, who is the vice chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, filed SB 1318 after Kahan pushed for new public safety legislation. Kahan noted several cases where defendants charged with FPW-GUN were released on PR bonds and later charged with committing more severe crimes.
“Kahan pointed to the case of Quinnton Allen. Court records show Allen was convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in 2014 and sentenced to nine years in prison. After being released from prison in 2021, he was charged with being a felon in possession of a weapon,” KPRC 2 News reported in a recent article.
“Allen was released on a personal bond, according to Harris County records, and six months later was charged with murder. Allen is currently awaiting trial.”
Proponents of the proposed bill question why the county is knowingly putting convicted felons possessing firearms right back into the community.
“Silly me thought that any judge worth their weight at all would never give a personal bond to a convicted felon who had a weapon,” said State Sen. Huffman in a response during the July 2022 Allen hearing.
Huffman’s bill, if enacted, would add “felon in possession of a weapon” to the list of crimes not eligible for a personal recognizance bond.
(b-2) Except as provided by Articles 15.21, 17.033, and
17.151, a defendant may not be released on personal bond if the
(1) is charged with:
(A) an offense involving violence; or
(B) an offense under:
(i) Section 481.1123, Health and Safety
Code (manufacture or delivery of substance in Penalty Group 1-B);
(ii) Section 25.07, Penal Code (violation
of certain court orders or conditions of bond in a family violence,
child abuse or neglect, sexual assault or abuse, indecent assault,
stalking, or trafficking case); or
(iii) Section 46.04(a), Penal Code
(unlawful possession of firearm); or
(2) while released on bail or community supervision
for an offense involving violence, is charged with committing:
(A) any offense punishable as a felony; or
(B) an offense under the following provisions of
the Penal Code:
(i) Section 22.01(a)(1) (assault);
(ii) Section 22.05 (deadly conduct);
(iii) Section 22.07 (terroristic threat);
(iv) Section 42.01(a)(7) or (8) (disorderly
conduct involving firearm).
“According to records from the District Clerk’s Office, there are 1,170 active FWP cases and 16.6% of those cases show a personal bond was granted,” KCRP 2 wrote.
“Records from the Harris County District Attorney’s office show ‘felon in possession of a weapon’ charge has been filed 8,140 times since 2019.”
SB 1318 also calls for changes in the way magistrates, who set bail in many cases, are appointed in Harris County. Prosecutors would be given the opportunity to appeal to a higher judicial authority when they consider a bond “too low.”
The bill also details the notice provided by peace officers to adult victims of family violence, among other things. Read the latest draft of this bill here.
Spectrum: Slight Partisan Bill (Republican 2-1)
Status: Engrossed on March 29, 2023 – 50% progression
Action: 2023-05-23 – Placed on Major State Calendar
Opponents of Huffman’s bill argue that the proposed amendments are classist and harmful to the interests of lower-income defendants, who will be forced to sit in jail if they cannot raise the money to organize their release prior to trial.
“It would be wise for us to think about more comprehensive fixes to the system that don’t rely on wealth as a detention mechanism,” said Nicholas Hudson of American Civil Liberties Union, during a March 7 hearing before the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
Yet supporters of the bill assert that public safety is the primary responsibility of lawmakers. Harris County residents have expressed alarm at the drastic spike in violent crimes and murders within the county, blaming the current “catch and release” mentality of court magistrates.
“Let me show you a little bit about how this works… You have a criminal who is caught, and by the way, our administration does not back up very well our sheriffs and our police who are already on the job. They’re afraid to be a policeman, because they’re not backed up by those they answer to. That’s one problem,” said Dr. Ed Young of Second Baptist Church in a sermon that went viral last year.
In the sermon, the Houston pastor called out Houston’s broken bail reform system, in which local judges regularly release violent offenders back onto the streets for low PR bonds, where many quickly reoffend.
“Corruption, laziness, on steroids, and here we go. Catch and release,” Dr. Young said.
Huffman’s SB 1318 recently passed in the Senate and will reach the floor of the State House of Representatives today.
“It will be interesting to see how [the House] votes, particularly those with a D by their names,” said Kahan.