For many years, bonds in Tarrant County were set by municipal magistrates throughout the county. This meant individuals in different cities could receive vastly different bond amounts based on where they were arrested and which magistrate was on duty at the time. The process had its advantages – bonds were set quickly, and the bond amounts could be addressed again by a magistrate at the county-level, where bonds were generally set more uniformly. Yet, the magistration process is not without its problems.
A 2017 study published by the Texas Judicial Council and Texas A&M criticized the methods in place in Tarrant County, noting only 6 percent of accused individuals were released on a personal bond compared to 60 percent of individuals in Travis County, which used a risk-based release system instead of a financial means based release system. (Tarrant and Travis “are the third and fifth most populous jurisdictions in Texas, home to 2.0 million and 1.2 million residents, respectively. Both metro areas are counted among the fastest growing in the state. Travis County has a jail population of approximately 2,600, of whom 75 percent are being held pretrial. Tarrant County jails currently hold about 3,400 defendants, 62 percent of whom are awaiting trial.”)
The study also found that each additional day of detention up to 30 days increased the likelihood of conviction by 2 percent each day.
At the beginning of 2018, Tarrant County’s new sheriff, Bill Waybourn, changed four decades of the county’s “customary practice” of housing arrestees at city jails and began to follow the requirements of Texas law under Article 2.18 of the Code of Criminal Procedure. The Code requires a person jailed on a warrant or court order to go into the custody of the sheriff – not city jails.
Additionally, this year the federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals also handed down, ODonnel v. Harris County – the type of case that keeps judges awake at night.
At issue in ODonnel was Harris County’s bail bond process. The Fifth Circuit ruled that the bail bond processes in Harris County violated Equal Protection, Due Process, and Texas law.
Texas Code of Criminal Procedure 17.15 requires judges to make an individualized assessment based on five factors, including the person’s ability to pay, the nature of the charge, and community safety. At the trial level, federal District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal wrote an opinion — over 190 pages long — blasting the realities of the Harris County system, where 40 percent of individuals charged with misdemeanors stayed in jail until their cases were resolved. In many of these cases, those accused could go home with “credit for time served” if they entered a guilty plea and accepted conviction – incentivizing pleas for individuals who could not afford to make bond.
As a result of the ODonnel opinion, and the sheriff housing more inmates, the bail bond process in Tarrant County has had a number of changes. The magistrates are making an attempt to more carefully consider the 17.15 factors to make individualized determinations for individuals who have been arrested. These factors include:
Tarrant County’s magistrates are requiring accused citizens to complete forms that disclose their ability to pay and to go through “risk assessments” to determine if they are likely to re-offend while on bond.
The most common question we get now that Tarrant County has moved to central magistration is, “Why it is taking so long to get someone out of custody?” What used to take hours is now taking days. There are several reasons for this.
Now that a centralized magistrate system has been implemented by Tarrant County, magistrates are setting a person’s bond based on the alleged facts of the offense, risk, financial assessments, and an individual’s history of appearing in court – not based on recommended guidelines. They are following four steps:
Step One: The magistrate judge will review the alleged facts of the offense. This review will include the Probable Cause affidavit, any commitment order, and the offense report if one is available. Notice these are all documents prepared by law enforcement. This initial hearing is not adversarial, so the defense attorney is generally unable to submit information for consideration at this initial setting. (The defense attorney may later file a Motion for Reconsideration if they would like to present evidence.)
Step Two: Magistrate staff will administer a risk assessment tool provided by Noble – the Ohio Risk Assessment System – which was highly recommended in the Texas Judicial Council and Texas A&M Study. ORAS has been used with great success through the country and has been in place for years in other jurisdictions in the state.
ORAS is driven by the TCIC/NCIC criminal history and other objective facts such as age, gender, etc. The objective assessment is completed without interviewing the accused. It gives the magistrates a sense of who the client is and the likelihood that they will show up to court when they are supposed to.
The ORAS results are available to Noble, and the judges, but it is not available to defense counsel at this time. In the first part of 2018, out of the approximately 5,600 risk assessments that were run, 3,500 came back as low risk; 1,404 came back as moderate risk; 194 were high-risk to re-offend with a property crime; 483 were high-risk to re-offend with a non-violent crime; and 42 were high-risk to re-offend with a drug crime.
Step Three: Magistrate staff will provide the judge with a “Failure to Appear Score” – which is a review of the last two years’ worth of data on the accused’s compliance with any past court settings. The Failure to Appear Score is based on the number of cases a person has had, the number of settings they missed, and the bond was held insufficient as a result. The Failure to Appear Score gives the magistrate a tool to assess the likelihood of a person showing up in court.
Step Four: The Financial Assessment which is referred to as the FART (Financial Assessment for Rapid Transmission, which could have easily been “Swift” instead of Rapid…) or information available to the magistrate through Tech Share Indigent Defense. The magistrate judges have assured us the information obtained from the citizens-accused is merely biographical and basic financial information and that these individuals will not be questioned without their attorneys.
The terribly-named FART Assessment seeks to provide the magistrate with a sense of the arrestee’s ability to pay for the bond. This assessment is completed by sheriff’s deputies as arrestees are booked-in at the jail. Question areas include:
If a person has asked for court-appointed counsel, the magistrate will also have the responses from that interview.
Once these steps are completed, bond conditions and the bond amount is set by the magistrate. The bond conditions are noted in triplicate with a copy that the accused signs.
As of July 1, 2018, North Richland Hills is the only municipality that is still setting its own bonds. Every other municipality is now using the Central Magistration system, which brings us to the Number 1 criticism of the new system: The process of being booked in, bonded, and booked-out can now take 4 to 48 hours instead of what could have been done with a walk-through or a 1 to 2-hour process.
As a practical matter, having the bond modified after it is set will take a significant period of time if the modification is referred to magistrate court. After the preliminary bond has been set, a Motion to Reduce Bond may be filed with the court. The Motion may be referred to the magistrate court. If the matter is referred to the magistrate court, take the referral to the mag court coordinator. Let the coordinator know if a court reporter will be necessary. A hearing will be set with notice to both sides.
In the past, when a Motion to Adjudicate or Motion to Revoke a probationer was filed, a hold was generally placed to prevent a bond from being set until the district court judge was willing to set the bond. Additionally, revocation bonds were not set if the court fees and costs were past due. Now, if a “Hold, No Bond” appears on the motion, the magistrate will still not set a bond. However, the district court judges also have the option to now put “Bond to be set by Magistrate” on the face of the Motion to Adjudicate or Revoke. If the motion is so designated, the defense attorney can contact the Mag Court coordinator to begin the Risk Assessment and Failure to Appear score and the magistrate can set a bond. The magistrate can now consider whether the fees are paid, but it is no longer an absolute requirement for bonds to be set. CSCD has now also made the chronological files or “chronos” available to the magistrate and judges to consider when setting a bond. Depending on which court the case is probated out for, the person may be released to “CSCD only” meaning the person could spend a few more days in jail after the bond is posted, just waiting for a probation officer to become available to process them out. (The typical example is someone whose bond is set on a Friday with “release to CSCD” as a condition. Even if the bond is posted, the person will likely not be released from custody until early to mid-morning on Monday.)
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, individuals who are in custody but no case has been filed are brought to court to make bond determinations. An accused cannot be held without a reasonable or personal bond for more than:
In the case of a warrantless arrest, there are special rules involving bail. In the case of an arrest in which there was a warrant, a magistrate has already determined that there is probable cause to believe the accused committed a crime. This is not so in the case of a warrantless arrest and the magistrate will be required to determine probable cause.
If someone is arrested for a misdemeanor, the magistrate must make a probable cause determination within 24 hours of arrest. If that determination is not made, the accused must be released on a bond not to exceed $5,000. But if the accused cannot obtain a surety or deposit the full amount of the bond, they must still be released on a personal bond.
If someone is arrested for a felony, the magistrate must make a probable cause determination within 48 hours of arrest. If that determination is not made, the accused must be released on a bond not to exceed $10,000. But if the accused cannot obtain a surety or deposit the full amount of the bond, they must still be released on a personal bond. (TX CCP Art. 17.033)