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County judges duck and cover on bail reform

March 16, 2019

They held white crosses for people who died in detention pretrial. They made thousands of petition signatures look like cold cash. They marched around the Bexar County Courthouse demanding an end to cash bail for nonviolent misdemeanors here.

And they delivered more than 20,000 signatures to Bexar County’s misdemeanor court judges, who could end cash bail for such offenses but refuse to do so.

Or at least activists with the Texas Organizing Project recently tried to deliver petitions to these judges. Some were unavailable. Others opened their doors and were cordial but predictably unresponsive.

“I feel like they have this type of script memorized,” said Laquita Garcia, an organizer with TOP, which partnered with the national group Color of Change to collect these signatures.

And that script, she said, reads: “‘This is a legislative matter. It needs to be done at the state level.’”

Blah blah blah.

Judges have been regurgitating this script since early February, after they derailed local talks to implement bail reform á la Harris County. There, misdemeanor court judges have ended the use of cash bail for nonviolent offenses. But the judges here have concluded Harris County’s order is likely unconstitutional and goes too far. Other legal minds disagree.

“The Harris County bail rulings are in line with the constitution and are spreading throughout the country as judges are recognizing the long-lost constitutional rights of defendants,” Shima Baradaran Baughman, a professor with the University of Utah College of Law wrote to me in an email.

She continued: “Historically, release before trial has been a constitutional right. In recent years, release on bail has only been a right for wealthy Americans who can afford to pay high bail amounts. The Harris county ruling restores this right for all Americans who are safe to release and is a step in the right direction.”

What does she know? She’s only the author of “The Bail Book.”

Garcia left her meetings with Bexar’s judges exasperated.

“Judges say: ‘We support you. We appreciate your work, but we can’t stand publicly with you,’” Garcia said.

Frustrating, but maybe not so surprising.

Consider: One of the judges Garcia & Co. met with was Carlo Key. He did not respond to my interview request, but last May, Key was the defense attorney for a woman TOP bailed out of jail. The woman had spent two weeks locked up pretrial — and never saw Key.

When I asked him about this at the time, Key said, “Fourteen days is not a long time to be (in jail), relatively speaking.”

Unless, of course, you have kids or a job or believe you are innocent or are just too poor to make bond. If he couldn’t see the issue then, why would he see it from the bench now?

In fairness, it’s not like Bexar’s other judges are lighting the way. In defending the cash bail system in February, Judge John Longoria pretty much indicted it.

“There can rightly be somebody who sits in jail because he slaps his wife around and didn’t have the money to pay for a bond,” he said. “Now, if somebody else (who) slaps his wife around and has the money, then, yeah, they are going to get out. Our current system is not going to bless somebody for being poor and slapping their wives around.”

It was a shaky example partly because bail reform has never been about releasing people accused of violent offenses. No one wants wife beaters, rich or poor, to be released. This is all about nonviolent offenses. But mostly it was a poor example because it shows the inadequacies of the cash bail system. Cash bail does not weigh risk, it only measures wealth. And by doing nothing, Bexar’s judges are saying this is OK.

Bail reform is a policy endeavor, but this is also a political moment. Judges are elected, and TOP played a pivotal role in electing Joe Gonzales, a reform-minded district attorney.

Michelle Tremillo, TOP’s executive director, said, “This is something our community wants, and we have a DA who has the courage to make it happen, and we need judges to find the same courage.”

Time will tell if she was speaking about these judges or future ones.

jbrodesky@express-news.net