Bill SJR 44 Defeated: Harris County Criminal District Judges Can Still Legally Give Bond To Accused Violent Defendants

Clarence Walker
Harris County Texas JudgesPhoto byLaw Dragon

Harris County Criminal Court Democrat Judges have had a bullseye target on their backs by the Texas GOP Republicans for at least five years now over the judges' decisions giving bail bonds to accused criminals charged with violent crimes. It is not illegal for people facing violent charges to be released from jail on bond.

Texas State Republicans with strong support from Governor Greg Abbott have fought tooth, nail, and claw to dilute the authority and the discretion of the judges when it comes to judges setting bonds for accused violent offenders, in light of the rising numbers of homicides, human trafficking and robberies in the Houston area, beginning around 2018.

One defendant had been released on bond 31 times before a new judge set an excessive bond which forced the young man to remain behind bars.

But the Republicans failed in their efforts to have legislation SJR 44 passed to force judges in Harris County to deny bonds for accused violent criminals.
Harris County TX Criminal Courthouse in HoustonPhoto byHouston Chronicle

Veteran criminal defense Houston-based attorney Cheryl Irvin said what the Republicans are doing is not good law.
Houston-based Criminal Defense Attorney Cheryl Irvin: "There's a Law in The Code Already in Place to Hold Violent Defendants Without Bond"Photo byCourtesy of Attorney Cheryl Irvin

"I don't think it's appropriate. Let the prosecutors put on their evidence before a judge to prove a person is so dangerous to the community and show that the person should be held without bond."

"There is a law already in the criminal code of procedures that allows prosecutors to request that accused offenders charged with violent crimes remain in jail without bond. But the prosecutors must be careful not to violate a defendant's rights to a speedy trial," she explained.

Irvin was referring to 'Article 1, Section 11 A' of the Texas Constitution that gives prosecutors leeway to ask a judge to hold criminally accused defendants without bond if they are a true habitual(twice convicted of felonies and sent to prison), a flight risk, a danger to the community, and if the state is seeking the death penalty in a capital murder case.,may%20be%20prescribed%20by%20law.

Irvin also ripped the bloody scab off the hypocrisy when it comes to whose legal rights are stepped on.

"Republicans always talk about gun rights but what about a person's right to have the presumption of innocence," she said.

Citing the Second Amendment, Irvin said since nobody wants their gun rights taken away then what about the taking of other people's rights under the Constitution?"

"What about a person's right to a bond under the Constitution?"

"Don't other people's rights matter too?"

"It's not fair," Irvin insisted.

Irvin further said the current judges on the bench in Harris County set some of the highest bonds for a murder charge and other felonies that she has seen since practicing law which began during the 1980s.

Attorney Tom Zakes weighs in on the matter. "You can't lump all judges in Harris County at the courthouse together just because they are Democrats. Some judges set reasonable bonds while other judges set ridiculously higher bonds."

Zake agreed with Irvin that many bonds in certain cases are set even higher than the amounts that had been set by some former Republicans who were criminal court judges in Harris County.

"I recall having a client who had a million dollars bond for murder and a $500,000 bond for being a Felon in Possession of a weapon." Zake said a Democrat judge set those excessive bonds.

SJR 44 Failed

Despite obtaining bipartisan support in the Texas Senate, a second attempt to let people decide whether Harris County Criminal Court judges should deny bail to certain violent criminals failed in the Texas House of Representatives.

Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 44, authored by Sens. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-McAllen) and Joan Huffman (R-Houston), was set to change the Texas Constitution, which now ensures bail for the majority of defendants with the exception of those accused with capital murder.

The key elements of the bill was whether certain "major offenses" such as kidnapping, robbery, sexual assault, assault with a dangerous weapon, and recurrent human trafficking might result in suspects being denied bail.

But SJR 44 made it clear that judges and magistrates "shall impose the least restrictive conditions, if any, that are reasonably necessary to ensure the accused person's appearance in court as required and the safety of the community, law enforcement, and the victim of the alleged offense."

The bill passed the Senate in March with a 30 to 1 vote, but it sat dormant in the House Committee on Criminal Jurisprudence until just last week when House Members rejected it by a vote of 7 to 0.

Scheduled for a second reading on Tuesday night around 10 p.m. on the House floor, Rep. Reggie Smith (R–Sherman), the sponsor of SJR 44, sought to table the measure until September 2023.

Smith's procedural action effectively killed the measure for this session because Tuesday was the last day for the House to vote on Senate proposals that were in the third reading.

Smith also tried to delay Huffman's Senate Bill (SB) 1318, which sought to add felons in possession of a weapon (FPW) to the list of charges that would disqualify a person from posting a personal recognizance (PR) bond as part of the 2021 bail reform legislation.

Similar to SJR 44, the bill received bipartisan support in the Senate two months prior but was unable to go forward in committee until last week, with only a few days left in the current session.

State legislators approved limits on PR bonds for the most severe crimes during the 2021 session, but a proposal akin to SJR 44 failed to receive the two-thirds support required in the House to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Texas Senator Joan HuffmanPhoto byTexas Senate/Doug Beal

Earlier this year in March, referring to a possible change in how surety bonds are given to repeat defendants if SJR 44 passes at the time, Senator Huffman criticized Harris County Criminal Court Judges over their lack of more stringent enforcement when it comes to granting bonds to extremely violent offenders.

“It has become starkly clear that our local officials making bail determinations day in and day out needs this tool to protect the people of Texas from future harm,” Huffman said.

If the resolution had passed in both the House and Senate, SJR 44 would've been on the ballot for Texas voters during the upcoming election on Nov. 7.

The proposed change comes amid a growing dispute over bail practices in Texas and across the country in recent years. Last legislative session, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law Senate Bill 6, which placed restrictions on how judges set bail.

Typically, judges can review a person's charges and criminal history and determine whether a defendant must pay cash or be released without payment on what's known as a personal recognizance bond, or "PR bond."

That changed after SB 6. Now, judges are required to set a cash bail amount for violent offenses.

As stated, Democrat Judges in Harris County have been under fire in recent years for repeatedly releasing dangerous convicts on low bail or PR bonds who went on to commit new crimes. Andy Kahan of Houston's Crime Stoppers has recorded over 200 instances in which a person who was released on several felony or PR bonds was accused of committing murder or capital murder.

SJR 44, which would have given Texas voters the chance to decide whether judges should have the discretion not to grant a bond to defendants charged with certain violent crimes, was knocked cold.

"Obviously we are disappointed to once again come right up to the cusp of passing SJR 44," Kahan said to The Texan News. "It is illogical to not offer judges more latitude."

The Harris County District Attorney's Office issued a warning last year that the number of defendants facing assault or homicide charges while out on bond for FPW(Felon in Possession of Firearm) had significantly increased.

According to Kahan's testimony, Harris County releases up to 50 defendants accused of FPW each month, some of them were also found to be in possession of machine guns.

In response to SB 1318's demise, Kahan stated that "we have no issues with releasing convicted felons charged with FPW, a gun, and defendants charged with Possession of a Prohibited Weapon, even a machine gun, right back to the community on PR Bonds."

Since gun violence in Houston/Harris County is a hot-button topic, he continued, "This makes zero sense."

Huffman's SB 23 cleared the Senate on April 5 with bipartisan support and was designated a priority bill by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick. It would have increased penalties for felonies committed with a firearm. Rep. Joe Moody (D-El Paso), chair of the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee, held a hearing on SB 23 on May 2 and then left the bill waiting, thereby killing it for this year.

The Texan Website article said,"With only a few days remaining to advance bills, Kahan expressed hope that both SJR 44 and SB 1318 would be moved to a special session agenda in light of speculations that Gov. Greg Abbott will call one to address school choice and other failed legislation."

The Constitutional battle in Texas continues.

Criminal Justice Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at

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I am a freelance news reporter, investigative journalist, true crime writer and historical researcher. I write about community news, crime, business, real estate, human interest, entertainment & politics. Expect to get the stories that matters most.

Houston, TX

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