Texas Bail Reform Bill Attracts Critics: Alec Karakatsanis and the Houston Chronicle

Alec Karakatsanis

By Raïssa Ngoma & Eric Grammatico

AUSTIN, TX – Texas Senators assembled late last week in a special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott to discuss 11 topics on his agenda—and Texas Republicans advanced a bail reform bill this weekend that has received a lot of attention from criminal justice reform advocates, police officers, the previously incarcerated, and attorneys.

The bill, SB 21, would end the release of those accused of committing certain violent and sexual crimes on no-payment bonds. However, it would still allow the release of defendants as long as they can pay in cash, be it partial or in full.

The controversial bill appears to be a quick-fix solution to reduce the recent rise of recidivism across the state. But critics are warning legislators about the potential consequences it could have on disadvantaged individuals and their communities.

One such critic is Alec Karakatsanis, a Pennsylvania native whose work as a Social Justice Advocate and Civil Rights lawyer centers around the topic of the American bail system. He is the co-founder of Equal Justice Under Law and the executive director of the Civil Rights Corps non-profit.

Recently, he took to Twitter to address an article by the Houston Chronicle, which in his opinion falsely depicts the American bail system. Karakatsanis criticizes the article for essentially blaming murders on bail reforms, and also condemns the article for poor journalism because it failed to address contrary evidence that proves the damage of reinforcing cash bails.

He writes, “Every rigorous academic examination shows that rampant pretrial human caging and family separation that results from this country’s shameful use of cash bail leads to more future harm,” noting it is easier to monitor and keep people in jail with cash bails because it costs less than hiring lawyers and giving jury trials to everyone arrested.

Unfortunately the state of Texas may not agree with reforming the cash bail system, but instead the state is planning to pass a bill which will allow the increase of cash bail in the entire state of Texas.

Despite media coverage of people who die in prisons from not being able to afford their cash bail, states like Texas continue to enforce cash bail policies even for non-violent and minor offenses such as stealing bread.

One of those people is Preston Chaney, a man arrested for stealing frozen meat and lawn equipment. His bail was set to $100, but he died from COVID-19 after spending nearly four months in jail because he was unable to afford bail.

Karakatsanis reasons that a lot of people like Chaney innocently die in jail cells because the system “use[s] cash bail to keep poor people in jail,” and then justifies this action as one that is needed to regulate the recent surge of crimes in America.

Conversely, the article cited 221 deaths connected to defendants who were out on bail between 2013 and 2020, which could be interpreted as an obstinate advocating for the present bail reform bill.

However, the Houston Chronicle’s editorial board came out with a piece that criticized SB 21 and expressed a preference for HB 20. But the support is negligible—the board has renounced the bill in its writing for failing to address poverty jailing and the release of violent criminals through Texas’ bail bond system.

The article Karakatsanis criticized acknowledges the futility of cash bail systems as a means to reduce violent crimes, stating, “The Chronicle’s analysis indicates that less than a fifth of defendants in the 221 cases were out only on personal recognizance bonds or general order bonds, meaning they had paid little or no money to secure their release.”

About The Author

Raïssa Ngoma is a fourth year at UC Berkeley pursuing Legal Studies with minors in African American Studies and Korean. She is originally from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but moved to the States in 2011.

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