By Judge Brandon Birmingham, NDG Guest Contributor
The Texas Constitution is missing something. Let’s fix it.
On Feb. 15, the Texas Constitution turns 141 years old. Ratified in 1876, it is the 5th Constitution in our State’s history. We enjoy the right to free speech, the freedom of religion, and the right to a jury trial to name a few. These rights form the foundation of our system, and are enjoyed by everyone. Lawmakers and Judges must follow these commands in every decision, every step of the way.
Since 1876, there have been 666 proposed amendments, 484 of which became law. I say we change those numbers to 667 and 485. Why? Because we need to address a major problem in our criminal justice system: Bail Reform.
Here’s what I propose as amendment 667: “A person otherwise eligible for bail shall not be detained pre-trial solely because of financial inability to pay.”
In other words, people should not be in jail awaiting trial simply because they are poor. Should they remain in jail Pre-trial because they are dangerous? Yes. A flight risk? Sure. Poor? No.
It’s a simple declaration I think everyone agrees with, even people on opposite sides of the aisle. Take, for example, the Democratic Senator from California, Kamala Harris, and the Republican Senator from Kentucky, Rand Paul. Last summer, they wrote the Pretrial Integrity and Safety Act, the goal of which is to make sure people in jail awaiting trial in the Federal System are not there solely because they are poor.
Even here in Texas, the 6-term Republican Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, Nathan Hecht, supported legislation to make sure people in jail are not there solely because they are poor. He even invited me, an elected Democrat, to be a part of “Team Texas” in October, and travel to Kentucky. We met with Supreme Court Justices, prosecutors, trial court judges and policymakers from all over the Country to learn about bail reform, and how different States are handling these major bail reform issues:
- How do we fairly and objectively determine a person’s risk to the community and their likelihood to flee?
- How quickly after arrest can we have a bail hearing where the accused is represented by a lawyer and the prosecutor has an opportunity to be heard?
- How can we use technology and staffing instead of the incarceration to ensure a person shows up for court to answer to the charges?
These days, I can’t think of much politicians or policy-makers agree on, but this is one, and it’s time we took advantage of it. Why? Because jails are made for people we are afraid of as determined by their conduct, not their bank account.
Brandon Birmingham is the Presiding Judge of all Felony District Courts in Dallas County. Contact him on all social media at @JudgeBirmingham, or by visiting his courtroom on the 6th Floor of the Frank Crowley Courts Building in the 292nd Judicial District Court.