Honoring Innocent Until Proven Guilty: Switching the Default Rule from Pretrial Detention to Pretrial Release in Texas's Bail System
Texas’s current prison population consists of far more pretrial detainees than convicted criminals. Despite United States and Texas constitutional protections, the default rule in many jurisdictions, including Texas, detains misdemeanor and non-violent felony defendants unless they can post a monetary bond or get a surety to post the bond for them (“bail bond”) to obtain their release. Most pretrial detainees remain detained due not to their alleged dangerousness, but rather because they simply cannot afford to post bail (or get someone to post it for them). As a result, many pretrial detainees find themselves choosing between hamstringing their financial future or remaining in detention until trial. If Americans are serious about “honoring the presumption of innocence,” we must reform the way that misdemeanor and non-violent felony defendants are treated while awaiting trial. Rather than treat them as guilty and keep them in jail unless they can pay for their release, the standard should be to release them unless there is a very good reason for not doing so. By changing the default option from pretrial detention to pretrial release, many Texas judges will be more pre-disposed to release misdemeanor and non-violent felony defendants on conditions other than the posting of monetary bail. This switch will result in fewer people being detained simply because they cannot afford to be released—which will prevent adverse economic consequences to already disadvantaged citizens. Proposed reform has been discussed for decades. Reforming the bail system in Texas is a current, critical need. This criminal justice issue undermines the public’s faith in our system of justice and detrimentally affects the economic and social status of countless citizens who will ultimately be found not guilty. Doing nothing weakens our overall rule-of-law system and ultimately erodes the foundation upon which our society is built.