In August of last year, Texas Governor Greg Abbott proposed the Damon Allen Act. This bill is a set of proposals aimed at protecting police officers and communities after a repeat-criminal gunned down a Texas trooper last Thanksgiving. In fact, there are two sets of bail reform bills named after a Texas trooper killed by a suspect out of jail on bond. Both for assaulting a sheriff’s deputy. The criminal in Damon Allen’s case had not only been previously convicted of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy, but had an extensive criminal history. Some of these include facing arrest for assaulting a public servant, and for evading arrest.
The reason he was free on bond despite these violent charges? The Justice of the Peace, in his case, happened to be unaware of his criminal history and past convictions. This potentially highlights issues of magistrate information access and relevancy, as a different decision may have unfolded had the Justice of the Peace understood the criminal’s full history.
Texas Not Happy With Bail Reform
Since the 2017 failure to pass bail reform law by Texas state lawmakers, there have been a number of successful lawsuits against Texas counties over their bail practices. In fact, two of Texas’ largest counties—Harris and Dallas—have been at the front lines of those lawsuits, with federal judges claiming their practices to be unconstitutional. However, in 2019, this topic will likely return to the front stage as Texas state lawmakers renew their platform—once again sparking the fight to reform the Texas bail system.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott, after working with Damon Allen’s family, proposed the Damon Allen Act. This set of laws intends to prevent situations like his from happening again. However, what exactly do these set of proposals entail? Texas, as most know, is a red state—a state that frowns upon bail bond reform laws. The specific proposals included in the Damon Allen act are as follows:
- Put Public Safety First
- Increase Magistrate Qualification
- Increase Magistrate Information
- Protect Communities from Repeat Offenders
Below, we’ll break down each proposal:
Put Public Safety First
According to Chapter 17 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure, judges have a limited discretion when working with defendants. While this allows relevant information to go under the radar when working with violent defendants, it’s meant to protect privacy. The Damon Allen Act aims to change this clause, and instead emphasize the safety of the community. By doing this, the Damon Allen Act allows a magistrate to consider the criminal history of a defendant. Along with this, it aims to allow a magistrate to consider all other relevant information, in a stride towards transparency. This is especially true with law enforcement.
Increase Magistrate Qualification
The Damon Allen Act intends to increase magistrate qualifications by allowing any magistrate to set the amount of bail required. Additionally, the goal is to allow magistrates to determine the amount of danger posed against a community from a defendant’s release. This includes considering any issues of mental health and family violence. In cases involving felony offenses or misdemeanors involving sexual offenses and assault, it states District Court judges—and their associate judges—make these determinations.
Increase Magistrate Information
As mentioned earlier, magistrate information access and relevancy is a clear issue in Damon Allen’s case. If you remember, the Justice of the Peace in this particular criminal’s case released him on bond without knowing his criminal history—a target issue of the Damon Allen Act. Texas Governor Greg Abbott aims to give judges ready access to any relevant information in order to set bail. By creating a uniform Court Management System through the Office of Courts Administration, this is possible.
By doing so, the act closes critical information gaps—preventing relevant information from going under the radar. This move will especially impact counties with a population under 20,000 (>20,000), where it’s common for vital information to go unnoticed. By implementing the uniform Court Management System, it will ensure magistrates access the full picture of any defendant’s criminal history and mental health involvements—and alert them to protective orders.
Protect Communities from Repeat Offenders
Lastly, the Damon Allen act aims to implement additional steps when a defendant is being supervised for previous criminal conduct. These include parole, probation, bond, etc. When this happens, the Damon Allen act states that after a magistrate determines that a defendant is being supervised by another agency, that specific agency should receive a notification. This notification system functions via the aforementioned Case Management System. This connects magistrates with the appropriate agency, and allows for full, open, and transparent movement of information.
Will Texas Act in 2019?
While no one can definitively predict what will happen in 2019, it’s very likely that the topic of bail reform will continue to remain in the legislative spotlight. With an entire industry at risk, potentially thousands of people will lose their source of income. A statement made by Al Rucker, owner of Midtown Bail Bonds, highlights an importance of bail discussion:
“The smaller guys who don’t have multiple locations, who don’t have as many employees and who (do) not have the marketing power that we have, those guys are going to be hurt… And then you’re going to have more people unemployed.”
Whether or not Governor Greg Abbott will see the Damon Act pass has yet to unfold. However, it’s made clear the issues surrounding repeat-criminal violence against police officers and troopers. Something we can all agree on: a lot has changed in Texas since 2017, and when it comes to bail reform laws in Texas, 2019 may bear strange fruit.