State Leaders Must Focus on Public Safety, Mental Health, Disabilities in Reform, says an assistant district attorney.

The centerpiece of the current pretrial release system—bail as it’s more commonly known—is money, rather than public safety. 

The system, which is arguably unconstitutional, preys on the most vulnerable among us, including those with demonstrated mental health concerns and intellectual or physical disabilities.

Unfortunately, current bills working their way through the legislature right now will not improve public safety and will only make the justice system even more of a two-tiered system: one for those who have money; and one for those who don’t.

While we desperately need bail reform—over 53% of the county jail population in Texas consists of people awaiting trial—this legislation isn’t it.

As filed, the proposed legislation makes a bad system worse by requiring more people to pay cash for their release. Unfortunately, most people wouldn’t have the funds required to pay for their freedom, leaving themlocked away. On the flip side, the few who could afford to pay to play would be released regardless of how dangerous they are. These provisions would affect anybody unable to find steady work, regardless of reason, andinclude people with intellectual or physical disabilities. Our county jails are already overflowing with people awaiting trial, and this group of people—those who have not been found guilty of any crime—accounts for 80% of COVID-related deaths in our jails. We need to be looking for solutions rather than making it worse.

The legislation would also disproportionately affect Texans struggling with mental health during a time in which many of us are experiencing increased anxiety, depression, or isolation, and over 75% of us have close friends or family members with behavioral health needs. The Texas Judicial Commission on Mental Health found “adults with untreated mental health conditions are eight times more likely to be incarcerated than the general population,” according to a study published in 2016. That same report went on to state that approximately 20-24% of the Texas inmate population has a mental health need. As the former District Attorney for Tarrant County, that’s no surprise to me where my jail includes significant numbers of those struggling with mental illness.

My situation is not unique though; across the state approximately 30% of county jail inmates receive some sort of mental health service. Unfortunately, the waitlist for transfer to a state mental health hospital is currently over 1,450 deep, meaning a wait of 18 months or more—leaving far too many Texans in jails while costing us untold millions in costs and productivity losses.

Worse yet, doing all of this doesn’t keep any of us safer. Studies have shown that holding low-level offenders in jail for more than forty-eight hours correlates to a forty percent increase in rates of re-arrest, but when effortshave been made to reduce the use of cash bail, like in Harris County, there hasn’t been a short term increase in crime.

This legislation would also be costly—jails are among the most expensive items in a county’s budget. By extending incarceration time for what should be addressed as public health issues, these measures would lead to ballooning budgets at the expense of taxpayers dollars without providing any real solution to the problem.

Editor’s Note: The above guest column was penned by Jake Lilly, an assistant district attorney for the Office of the Criminal District Attorney in Fort Worth, Texas and a special assistant U.S. Attorney. Lilly is a speaker with the Law Enforcement Action Partnership, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, corrections officials, and other law enforcement whose aim is to “transform policing by advocating for drug policy and criminal justice reforms that will make communities safer and more just”.

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