On Thursday afternoon, the Texas House Committee on County Affairs heard testimony on jail standards, mental health, and officer conduct. The hearing followed the disturbing arrest and subsequent tragic death of Sandra Bland in the Waller County Jail.
Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston), County Affairs committee member, said following the hearing on Thursday:
"We had an extremely honest and productive hearing today. I want to thank Chairman Coleman for his leadership in facilitating a candid and open discussion on these pressing matters. Sandra Bland's death was a tragedy that did not need to happen. I hope we make the effort to learn from this incident and reform the way we operate our jails, and manage our criminal court dockets."
Approximately 61% of people in Texas county jails are being held pre-trial; meaning that a court has not found them guilty of any crime. Many others sit in jail because they are unable to pay fines and fees assessed by the court. Rep. Wu adds, “Texas jails have become modern debtors’ prisons – those with means can leave, but the poor languish.”
Media reports indicate that Waller County had recently moved to a “fixed bond” schedule, where the amount of the bond is set based on the criminal charge alone, without accounting for individual means and circumstances. Rep. Wu notes, “This type of fixed bond schedule doesn’t take into account the actual nature of the incident or whether the defendant is a danger to others; it ties the hands of prosecutors and judges to make common sense adjustments.”
Wu adds, “We have also discussed for years that criminal courts use personal recognizance bonds (‘PR Bonds’) for anyone charged with a petty offense and pose no risk of harm or flight; yet few courts have done so.”
The hearing Thursday also highlighted pervasive mental health issues in jails. Following Bland’s death, The Texas Commission on Jail Standards found the Waller County Jail to be noncompliant with mental health standards; citing a lack of staff training on mental health and failure to check on inmates every hour. The TCJS has cited Waller County Jail for standards violations multiple times over the last several years.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, suicide is the leading cause of death in local jails, and more than a third of jail deaths occur within the first 7-days after booking. A significant proportion of people in jails have serious mental health needs, and jail conditions can exacerbate mental health issues, cause significant distress, and lead to mental and physical deterioration.
During the 84th Legislative Session, Wu championed efforts to improve jail conditions. He joint-authored HB 549, introduced by Rep. Eric Johnson (D-Dallas), which ensures people held in jail have the opportunity for in-person visits from family and friends; rather than video-only visits. Jails that had already switched to video-only systems will be allowed to continue with those systems due to a compromise needed to pass the bill, but Wu encourages all counties to do the right thing.
"The ability to have direct contact with loved ones helps maintain the mental wellbeing of people in county custody," Wu said. "We should not save money at the cost of increasing the risk that people will harm themselves."
Bland’s tragic death highlights injustices in Texas law enforcement and jail systems. Wu vows to work with his colleagues over the interim and during the next legislative session to push for meaningful change.
“We need to reduce the number of people languishing in jail, decrease penalties for petty crimes, increase the use of personal recognizance bonds, improve overall conditions in jails, look at inequalities in our criminal justice system, and address law enforcement training and professionalism,” Wu said. “Texans deserve a smarter and more efficient criminal justice system. We will be asking for the public’s support on these efforts.”
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