The Austin Chronicle

Opinion: Texas Republicans Want to Jail People in Poverty Indefinitely and Call It “Reform”

Almost 75% of people sitting in Texas jails have not been convicted of any crime; they simply can't afford to go home

By Kenna Titus, August 27, 2021, Columns

Seeing "bail reform" as a priority for the conservative Texas legislature may have come as a shock to progressives. The term usually refers to the movement against conditioning a person's liberty on their wealth. But, it turns out, Texas Republicans have something else in mind.

In another brilliant and sinister branding move, Texas Republicans have co-opted the term "bail reform" to sell an expansion of the cash bail system and keep people without money in jail pre-trial. That's right – in a state where being in jail often means horrific conditions, Texas Republicans have decided it's a priority to cage more people who don't have cash.

The current bail system reflects a disdain for people living in poverty that is endemic in Texas politics. Almost 75% of people sitting in Texas jails have not been convicted of any crime; they simply can't afford to go home. This bill worsens the problem by expanding the list of crimes ineligible for personal bond. Personal bond requires payment only if a court date is missed, rather than requiring cash as a condition of release. Requiring cash bail rather than personal bond means that people stay in jail just because they can't afford to leave. And it's these changes, of questionable constitutionality and deeply harmful to people in poverty, that Texas Republicans dare to call "reform."

The practice of dressing up oppressive policy in attractive terms is old hat for the GOP. The most prominent example is the term "pro-life." The movement bent on limiting women's bodily autonomy has such excellent marketing that we don't question pro-life means anti-abortion (not anti-death penalty, for instance). Across the country, Republicans are at it again, passing what they call "Election Integrity" bills which would be more accurately titled "Voter Suppression and Discrimination" bills.

We desperately need true bail reform. Time in jail results in job loss, eviction, and family distress – so the decision to keep people in jail has high stakes. But according to recent testimony at the Texas Legislature, 70% of Texas judges set bail based on "gut feelings." Meanwhile, releasing people pre-trial without bail has been shown to have no significant effect on public safety.

True bail reform would create a system that considers public safety over "gut feelings" and considers a person's ability to pay. And of course, jailing people unnecessarily is hugely expensive, so true bail reform would mean reallocating funds to help stop the cycle of incarceration. True bail reform should be a bipartisan priority – but this bill is not bail reform.

Language shapes policy. By co-opting the term "bail reform," Texas Republicans are implying they intend to fix a system which oppresses people living in poverty. The reality is just another bill that allows people to be caged for not having cash. And when terms get co-opted for oppressive policy, it becomes more difficult to make positive change.

Let's all be very clear – this is not bail reform. This is indefinite detention without trial for people in poverty, and Texas Republicans know it.

I am a current law student at the University of Texas School of Law and am driven to use my legal career to advance civil rights and reform the criminal legal system. I have studied criminal law, conducted research on bail reform, and worked for the journal clerk at the Texas House of Representatives. Through this experience, I have learned about the devastating effects that the current system has on people living in poverty.

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