Travis County’s Criminal Court Judges Skeptical of APD’s New Plan for Bail Hearings

The new program would alter the process for initial hearings after arrest (Photo by Getty Images)

When Travis County’s criminal court judges caught wind of an experimental system for conducting bail hearings that the Austin Police Department has been cooking up, they took the unusual step of penning a letter to city and police leadership asking them to put a stop to the plan.

The letter, dated Nov. 30 and obtained by the Chronicle last week, was signed by all 16 of the judges who preside over the courts in Travis County that hear criminal cases. APD’s plan would bring big changes to magistration, the initial hearing after arrest that determines if there is probable cause to arrest someone and what their bail conditions will be. The judges wrote that these changes could have serious repercussions.

“We recognize the desire to magistrate arrestees as efficiently as possible and to be fiscally responsible with the city’s resources,” the judges wrote in their letter. “These aims, however, should not come at the expense of the integrity of our community’s magistration process.”

Currently, when an Austin Police Officer arrests someone, they are taken to the Central Booking Facility Downtown. Once there, the arrested person undergoes a physical and mental health screening, then a pretrial interview to determine what risks a jail stay might pose to their employment, housing, or parental custody. All of this work is performed by Travis County employees.

The pretrial information is delivered to the municipal judge (a City Council appointee) along with a report on the person’s criminal history and the probable cause affidavit justifying the arrest, written by the arresting officer. The judge then conducts a bail hearing to determine if the person should be booked into jail or released on cash or personal recognizance (no money) bond. And under policies in place by the Travis County and District Attorney’s Offices known as early arrest review, charges are sometimes dismissed before this stage.

It’s a complicated system and altering it would require close collaboration among the various parties who play a role in the process. But many of those entities – the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, the District and County Clerks, prosecutors, judges, defense attorneys – say that since APD first floated the proposal earlier this summer, the department has not done much to engage stakeholders on developing their proposal.

“All we’re doing right now is exploring our options.” – Mayor Kirk Watson

APD’s plan would essentially cut the county out of the process all together, which police officials say could save the city millions of dollars on a contract where the city pays the county to perform much of the work associated with magistration. But it’s that potential cost-savings that has practically everyone outside of the police department worried about how the proposal could impact people placed under arrest.

The judges’ letter outlines four areas of concerns. Among them, that the pilot could jeopardize the pretrial services that help municipal judges make more informed bail decisions, and that it could interfere with a joint city-county effort to relaunch a program known as Counsel at First Appearance – which ensures people have defense counsel during their first hearing before a judge. “To ensure that the post-arrest process runs as smoothly as possible while protecting the rights of all parties involved,” the judges conclude in their letter, “we would respectfully ask that you reconsider the proposed pilot program.”

Mayor Kirk Watson offered a response. “All we’re doing right now is exploring our options,” the mayor said through a spokesperson, “while following state law and protecting the constitutional rights of those who are arrested or detained.”

APD Assistant Chief Jeff Greenwalt tells us that the department intends to proceed with the pilot despite the judges’ concerns. APD will test a mock version of the process internally in February, without using any real people. “I imagine the actual pilot will happen pretty quick after that,” Greenwalt said, Dec. 18, “but it depends on the feedback we get.”

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