Special Report: Proposed bill to get jailed offenders out faster

Special Report: Proposed bill to get jailed offenders out faster

MIDLAND COUNTY, TX (KWES) - If you're arrested and charged with a crime in Texas, your ability to get out of jail quick is based on whether you can pay bond. But a proposed bill hopes to change that.

"This will be a deal when somebody comes in, as soon as they hit the door, they're gonna go out the side door," said Midland County Sheriff Gary Painter. "They're gonna be gone."

Counties across Texas spend about $900 million housing offenders on misdemeanor charges.

That's why a proposed bill, Senate Bill 1338, by Senator John Whitmire would allow judges and magistrates to make your bail decision within 48 hours. Using a risk assessment system, it looks at jailed defendants to see who is a low-risk offender and who is less likely to skip court. It doesn't apply for violent offenses like kidnapping or murder.

So if you can't afford to pay bond, you'll be let out completely free as long as you're not a menace to society.

"They can get out on as little as nothing and won't have to pay any kind of money," said Painter.

The goal is to speed up the process of releasing jailed defendants, what's called a personal recognizance bond.

Senator Whitmire said the bill would help poor and low-risk offenders awaiting trial and their families shouldn't have to break the bank if they can't afford to get someone out. PR bonds already exist in both Midland and Ector County.

"PR Bonds are a benefit to our community, I think they're a necessary function," said Ector County Jail Administrator, Captain Steven McNeill. "There's a lot of people fortunate to have that in place so they can return to the workforce and their families and not be confined in our facilities where it's costing the taxpayers a lot more money."

Ector County says PR bonds have helped alleviate some of the jail overcrowding but are looking to expand on the program. In Midland County, offenders can bond out at 3% on a pretrial bond. The ones who never show up for court? They end up back behind bars.

"People that tend to violate the law tend to repeat," said Painter.

But some say this bill is just an invitation for offenders to commit more crimes.

"Once they get out, they're gonna flee," said JR Investigations Fugitive Recovery Agent, Jaime Moreno.  "That's where we come in, we do the investigations and surveillance, we track them down, with the help of local law enforcement, we take them back to jail."

He's hired through bail bond companies to go after offenders who jump bail. But he said this bill could make his job difficult to catching fugitives.

"It's pretty much a pinky promise saying I'm going to go to court," said Moreno. "If they don't go to court, the only thing that will be issued are the warrants. The bail bonds they won't be able to give us the warrants to arrest them, so no one is going to be able to arrest them, it's a cat and mouse game for law enforcement. They fight them, they don't, they're gonna be on the streets."

Right across the street from the Midland County Jail is Tall City Bail Bonds, and every day, their bonding agents stay busy.

"We deal with about 700-800 clients a week," said bonding agent Brisli Estrada. "Our main goal here is to get our clients out of jail as quickly as possible and stay on top of their court dates to make sure they appear for court."

With client after client, they even see those who repeat their crimes. But they also see Senate Bill 1338 as a benefit to help keep the jail population down.

"I've gotten out a certain guy I think four times in the past month," said Estrada. "I don't think it's going to affect us because of the fact they're trying to get these people out as quickly as possible for the ones that can't afford to bond out through a regular bonding company. If anything, it'll prevent the overcrowding."

Midland County had an overcrowding problem in past years which led to them sending inmates to nine counties. But the Midland County Sheriff's Office says it's more than just jail space.

"It can alleviate overcrowding but what it's gonna do then is it's gonna increase the number of warrants you have in the books to the thousands. Multiple thousands. I think that's gonna be a problem," said Painter.

If the plan goes into action, supporters say it would help alleviate jail overcrowding and save counties thousands of dollars for housing inmates. But opponents fear it will still lead to offenders repeating their crimes.

"Most of the time they do the same crime," said Moreno. "It's either they're institutionalized, or they can't get a job coming fresh out of jail so they turn back to the life of crime."

The Texas Senate approved the bill last week with a final vote of 21-10. It'll have to go through the House next but there's no set date yet.

"In a larger community, you don't know everybody," said Painter. "The biggest question you have to ask, are they a danger to the citizens? That is one of the biggest things you have to answer."

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