Contentious bail reform issue could finally be moving forward in Bexar County

2019-04-28

by Jim Lefko

Monday, April 22nd 2019
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Laquita Garcia is the Texas Organizing Project's statewide right to justice coordinator (SBG photo)

SAN ANTONIO - After much discussion, bail reform could finally be more than a talking point, with substantive change emerging as a possibility in Bexar County.

County Judge Nelson Wolff, District Attorney Joe Gonzales and Sheriff Javier Salazar all spoke passionately last week about the need to stop arresting and locking up people for low level crimes. That followed the second jail death in the past four months of a person who was unable to make a $50 bail.

Jack Ule was found unresponsive in his cell last week and was later pronounced dead.

On Tuesday morning, the Bexar County commissioners will be taking up the issue again.

At about the same time, the Texas Organizing Project will be conducting a protest at the courthouse.

"Jail isn't the answer for these individuals. They are not causing chaos in our communities or making our communities unsafe," said Laquita Garcia. She is the Texas Organizing Project's statewide right to justice coordinator,

Garcia would like Bexar County to follow Houston's lead on bail reform.

But the magistrate judges have not been an easy group to convince that change is needed.

"Judge (John) Longoria is one of the individuals that spearheaded a letter to Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, the DA and the sheriff," Garcia said.

"When they tried to talk with the judges about duplicating bail reform policies such as Harris County has (they said) they were blatantly not going to discuss it, and they were not open for discussion."

After the commissioners discuss bail reform today, Judge Longoria will be asking the court for over $18,000 for supplemental insurance to cover judicial liability for 15 county court judges. The request is tied to a federal ruling related to the Harris County bail system.

We reached out to Judge Longoria repeatedly today and were told he was out of town and unavailable for comment.

Judge Andrew Carruthers also was reluctant to discuss the issue, claiming it was "above my pay grade," and declining an on-camera interview.

Garcia says it is past time for action on this issue.

"Ultimately if we can't get anywhere with the elected officials listening to the community's voices, then maybe we need to reconsider who we are voting for at the ballot box," she said.

Joe Anthony Villanueva knows what it is like to be arrested and jailed for a low level offense. He was recently charged with possessing drug paraphernalia after a traffic stop. Villareal's car was impounded. He had to hire an attorney. And he had to spend over $1,000 to defend himself.

Joe Anthony Villanueva is an advocate for bail reform after he was recently arrested and briefly jailed for a low level offense.

"We just need huge change," he said. "It can ruin people's lives."

Villareal said income and race are a significant factor.

"At the end of the day, it's targeted," he said, listing "the low income, the black and brown, the minorities."

The Texas Organizing Project protest starts at 11:30 a.m. Tuesday on the courthouse steps.

"It's definitely going to take community pressure," Garcia said when asked what it would take to change the way the system works. "People should not be in jail simply because they can't afford to be out."

Janice Dotson-Stephens died in jail in December after she was unable to come up with $30 for bail. She had been locked up for five months before she was found dead. Like Ule, she was arrested for criminal trespass, which is frequently the charge for homelessness.

"Elected officials need to be coming together to create policies and changes that not only address homelessness, but also keep people out of jail for low level offenses such as criminal trespassing," Garcia said. "With the homeless, there are things like mental illness and sickness. They suffer from addiction. They have issues that need to be addressed."

Pat Monks