Travis County commissioners receive update on jail population, bond program amid scrutiny

The Travis County jail population hit a 10-year population low in 2018, at 2,221 individuals.

The Travis County jail population hit a 10-year population low in 2018, at 2,221 individuals.

Following scrutiny of Travis County’s bond system, members of the jail population monitoring group told commissioners public data does not accurately reflect who is in custody.

“If you just look at who’s in the jail and don’t consider the people coming and going, you’re not really getting a good idea of what our personal bond release program looks like,” said Meg Ledyard, a member of the group and a business analyst for criminal courts administrations.

The scrutiny stems from reform efforts in Harris County, where a lawsuit alleging cash bail unconstitutionally discriminates against the poor has resulted in a tentative settlement to provide automatic release for 85% of local defendants charged with misdemeanors.

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla told commissioners at an Oct. 29 meeting that Harris County and Travis County are different.

“There’s been a great deal of misconception, misinformation that’s been passed around,” Escamilla said. “And we thought it was important for us to know … who is in our jail and why.”

When a defendant in Travis County is released on a personal bond, he or she swears to return to court and comply with the conditions of his or her release. While there is no bond payment, there is an administrative fee.

Only an attorney or pretrial services staff can request release on a personal bond, which must be approved by a judge.

Although recent reporting states 75% of the Travis County jail population is pretrial—not yet released on bond or convicted of a charge—members of the jail population monitoring group contest this number.

“Publicly available data is not designed to answer this question,” said Valeria Hollier, a member of the group and a planning project manager in the county’s justice planning department.

Once additional factors are taken into consideration, including holds—such as in cases where a witness feels unsafe or the individual poses a threat to himself or herself—that make one ineligible for a personal bond, the portion of the jail population considered “pretrial” drops to around 50%, Ledyard said.

“The good news is that we don’t have a system where [bond] is set according to a schedule and the individual circumstances are not taken into account,” Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore said.

Advocates for criminal justice reform acknowledged Travis County’s record for progressive pretrial policies while pushing for further improvements.

“It’s the case that this county has been a leader and still is far better than many places in Texas, but it’s also the case that some of the places that were behind us for a long time are now being sued,” said Chris Harris, a data and policy analyst for the local nonprofit Just Liberty. “And the results of those lawsuits are pointing towards things that we are not yet doing that could make our county better.”

According to the monitoring group’s presentation, in 2018 71% of individuals eligible for release on a personal bond received one. This portion could be increased, Harris said, and those who are released could be let out of jail sooner, reducing the chances that a defendant misses work or child care obligations.

Other advocates urged commissioners to consider making additional changes to the county’s pretrial services process.

“The role of money bail continues to pose a problem in the county,” said Mary Mergler, an attorney with the local nonprofit Texas Appleseed. “There continues to be people who are in the Travis County jail who are there for no other reason than their ability to pay bail.”
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