Newsletter: Texas Lawmakers are Heading Back to Austin. What Does That Mean for Statewide Bail Reform?

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Hi NPPJ members,

Here’s a look back at the stories we brought you in June.

An Inside Look at Texas Jails During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Dozens of letters and phone calls shared by people housed in the state’s jails during the novel coronavirus pandemic detail the horrid conditions within. Collected by Texas Jail Project, the heart-wrenching testimony addresses the lack of personal protective equipment, the inability to socially distance due to overcrowding, jail staff who ignored their please for help, and the lack of communication about their cases.

“The people that we as a society are arresting and jailing are human beings…who have lives who are now being trapped in cages in the middle of a deadly pandemic, who are scared and traumatized and subject to incredible forms of mental and physical violence,” said Elizabeth Rossi, a senior attorney with Civil Rights Corps.

How Zealous is giving more power to public defenders

As a public defender for nearly 10 years in Brooklyn, Scott Hechinger knows all too well the struggles the lawyers in this role face each day across the country: overwhelming caseloads, the lack of funding and resources to provide adequate defense, and witnessing the constant harm done to people—especially those of color—by America’s legal system all in the name of public safety. So in 2019, Hechinger founded Zealous, an organization that trains and supports public defenders to advocate for themselves and the communities they serve effectively and ethically.

“Our aim is to create collaborative advocacy hubs around the country on a range of issues,” Hechinger said.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker is joined by lawmakers and community advocates, including state Rep. Justin Slaughter, left, and state Sen. Elgie Sims Jr., right, as he signs HB 3653, a sweeping criminal justice and police reform bill on Monday at Chicago State University. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune via AP)

Illinois becomes first state to abolish cash bail: ‘This is a monumental step in the right direction’

When Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker signed House Bill 3653 into law in February, it was a win for the state’s criminal justice reform advocates at a time when public outcry was pleading for change following the killings of Black people by police officers nationwide. The Pretrial Fairness Act, part of the sweeping reform, largely eliminates the state’s cash bail system by January 2023—a two-year rollout plan that gives both counties and judges time to understand and implement the law.

“This legislation marks a substantial step toward dismantling the systemic racism that plagues our communities, our state, our nation, and brings us closer to true safety, true fairness, and true justice,” Pritzker said at a signing ceremony.

While Texas Counties Pursue Bail Reform, the State Legislature is Pushing for a Rollback.

As Texas lawmakers prepare to embark back to Austin for a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott, they’ll be tasked with addressing the state’s bail system. Texas is in dire need of pretrial reform. But if the regular session that ended in May is any indication of what lawmakers might try to pass, Texas is facing something more along the lines of bail rollbacks than reform, said Insha Rahman with the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Good bail reform in Texas takes all the politics out and looks at the data and evidence about what works,” Rahman said. “And frankly, the politics aren’t there in Texas, and politics are driving this particular special session and bringing bail rollbacks into the mix.”
As always, you can read our full NPPJ story archive here.


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