State lawmakers to consider Damon Allen Act again this session

Published: Apr. 6, 2021 at 6:55 PM CDT
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KILLEEN, Texas (KWTX) - State lawmakers in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee will consider the Damon Allen Act again this session.

House Bill 20 would require the Office of Court Administration to set up a “pretrial risk assessment tool” that judges would use to set bail based on a number of factors.

“The thrust of the bill, in my view, is to move bail and decisions about bail away from purely money determinations and really think about risks instead,” Sandra Guerra Thompson, the director of the Criminal Justice Institute at the University of Houston Law Center, told KWTX.

She said that, under the bill, judges would consider criminal history, records of violating protective orders and other pieces of background information — a practice she said that is in effect only in certain jurisdictions in the state.

The bill is named after slain Department of Public Safety Trooper Damon Allen who was gunned down during a Thanksgiving Day traffic stop in 2017 in Freestone County by a suspect who was out on bond at the time.

“His killer was out on a $15,000 bond despite having previously been convicted of assaulting a sheriff’s deputy,” Gov. Greg Abbott said during his State of the State address in February.

The governor has designated the Damon Allen Act as one of his emergency items this legislative session.

“Too many Texans like Damon Allen have been murdered because of our broken bail system,” Abbott said during his address.

A version of the Damon Allen Act was also introduced in the 2019 legislative session.

Lawmakers voted the bill out of committee, but it was never heard before the full House.

The bill in front of lawmakers this session also would allow magistrates more freedom to deny bail in cases in which people are accused of violent or sexual crimes.

“It doesn’t apply to the lowest level of offenses,” Thompson said.

“We’re going to use risk assessment tools for sort of the middle range, and then we’re going to deny bail for the top,” she said.

Opponents of the bill argue that the risk assessment tool could unfairly target communities of color.

“If you have over-policing of certain neighborhoods — you know, neighborhoods that are poor and people of color — that results in more arrests, which could result in more convictions,” Thompson said.

“Then to have a tool that relies on those convictions is going to disproportionately impact them,” she said.

Others argue that the bill would hamper judges’ ability to release people charged with low-level misdemeanors on no-cost bonds.

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