ABOVE: Veteran journalist Ed Gordon; Harris County DA Kim Ogg; former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; Equal Justice Now representative; national civil rights attorney Ben Crump; Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 2 Judge Ronnisha Bowman; and social media influencer and community activist Mr. Checkpoint
TSU hosts National Bail Reform panel discussion with national civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Equal Justice Now, veteran journalist Ed Gordon, and other panelists TSU hosts National Bail Reform panel discussion with national civil rights attorney Ben Crump, Equal Justice Now, veteran journalist Ed Gordon, and other panelists
The conversation about bail reform has been an intensified one here in Texas, especially in Harris County. For the most part, the issue of bail reform has been used as a political “nuclear football” by Democrats and Republicans alike, with both seeking to use it as political leverage.
Sadly, these political theatrics have led to no common ground being established to actually address the issue of bail reform.
Case in point, this past September, Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 6 (SB6) into law, which now requires people accused of violent crimes to put up cash in order to obtain bail. Supporters of the law—mostly Republicans—believe SB6 is necessary to keep violent offenders off the streets, whereas critics of the law—mostly Democrats—believe the bill will place a financial burden and additional hardships on those who are poor.
Recurring questions regarding what meaningful bail reform should look like continue to resonate across the state of Texas, and this past week, a national town hall meeting was convened to get an answer to that question.
Texas Southern University (TSU) recently served as the host of a National Bail Reform Panel Discussion presented by Equal Justice Now—a prominent civil rights and social justice organization, and their strategic partner—nationally renowned civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump.
According to Equal Justice Now, they wanted to bring this conversation into the heart of a systematically disadvantaged community by the current criminal justice system, which is why they were proud to partner with TSU, a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) located in Houston’s historic Third Ward community.
The panel discussion, which was held in the Granville M. Sawyer Auditorium at TSU, featured Crump as the host, and was primarily moderated by veteran national journalist Ed Gordon.
Panelists included: former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake; NAACP-Houston Branch President Bishop James Dixon; Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 2 Judge Ronnisha Bowman; Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg; former Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo; Stix, Founder of Think Watts Foundation; Attorney Letitia Quinones; Michelle Esquenazi, CEO of Victims’ Rights Reform Council; Attorney Ken Good, Board member of the Professional Bondsmen of Texas; Attorney Dominique Calhoun, President-elect of the National Bar Association; and social media influencer and community activist Mr. Checkpoint.
Crump set the stage for the discussion, taking the stage first and talking about various cases that support both sides of the bail reform argument.
Crump shared a tragic story about an abusive husband who was given bail and released from prison three times, with the third release being the one that led to the brutal and fatal stabbing of his pregnant wife. Crump stated that the system must prevent individuals like that from being able to commit heinous crimes and being a menace to society.
In contrast, Crump also shared the story of a young Black man, Derrick Harris, who was falsely accused of sexual assault and rape, and who spent 4 ½ years in a Rikers Island prison without being offered bail. He was only released from prison after his family raised enough money to purchase a rape kit, which eventually proved his innocence. Crump detailed how Harris should have been given bail and released from prison and exonerated immediately, because law enforcement officials and prosecutors knew within three months of the crime that his DNA did not match that of the suspect.
Attorney Quinones gave a riveting personal testimony regarding her close friend who has served as a prosecutor for over two decades, and who told her that she felt like she was going to be in trouble because she didn’t have enough convictions in the current year.
“What do you mean,” Quinones stated she asked her friend, to which her friend responded, “I have to have a certain number of convictions, otherwise I’m going to get in trouble with my boss.”
Quinones then stated that she asked her friend whether it could have been a strong possibility that more people were actually innocent this year versus being guilty, which could be the reason her convictions were down.
Quinones highlighted the fact that her friend was a sweet person with good intentions, but it is the system that is the problem overall, not just the issue of bail reform.
Bishop Dixon stated that the system is not broken but is functioning how it was designed.
As was expected, the panel discussion also had its share of fireworks, with panelists and several members of the audience expressing their frustration with the current system, while much of the ire was directed to three of the panelists—Acevedo, Ogg, and Good.
On many occasions, Gordon had to transition from moderator to mediator, as he attempted to balance the panelists responding to questions and several vocal attendees who refused to accept the responses from or even appearance of some panelists.
Good was rebuked for making what many believed was a discriminatory comment about bail reform, when he stated, “misdemeanors are the training ground for tomorrow’s felons.”
When discussing her position on bail reform, Ogg had difficulty sharing her overall position without being interrupted by vocal audience members.
“The cash bail system can lead to disparate results,” said Ogg. “I think that’s why there’s so much controversy about what is the appropriate system.”
“Why are you on this panel,” asked one upset attendee, who questioned the addition of Acevedo to the panel.
Acevedo was also chastised by an audience member regarding six police officer involved deaths that occurred while he was the Houston Police Chief in 2020. After pretending to not know what deaths the audience member was referring to, several members of the audience booed and screamed out the names of some of those killed. One of the names mentioned by audience members was 27-year-old Nicolas Chavez, who was shot more than 20 times and killed by HPD officers, with his controversial death being caught on camera.
The four HPD officers involved with then Chavez incident were fired but given their jobs back through an arbitrator less than two years later, to which Acevedo stated that he was displeased with the fact that the officers got their jobs back and “did not get charged, indicted, or prosecuted.”
After hearing jeering from the audience, Gordon told Acevedo that if he felt that way, he should have used his Houston Police Chief “pulpit” to speak up and object to the arbitrator’s decision and demand accountability.
Bail reform has become a controversial topic and it was hoped that this panel discussion would help bring together some of the nation’s leading voices to examine the issue.
All-in-all, there were no gains made on the issue of bail reform, however at the end of the panel discussion, Gordon challenged the panelists, activists, and community leaders to sit down and work collaboratively together to come up with realistic solutions to the bail reform issue.
One of the most emotional parts of the event came at the end when Crump brought a young Black man on the stage named Samuel Jones. As he walked on stage with his cane, Crump shared Jones’ story that he was locked in Harris County Jail from November 25, 2018, to May 17, 2022, and was unable to get out because he was denied bail for a crime he was proven to have not committed. He was just let out of jail with no apology and no compensation.
“I lost my father. I lost three family members. I’ll never get that back. Nobody understands the pain that I feel,” said Jones. “Despite what I went through, we need to work together to find solutions so that nobody has to go through what I went through.”
Crump went on to read a cold-hearted letter from the office of Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez after having wrongfully served 3 ½ years in the Harris County Jail, which practically gave a historical overview of the details and time Jones spent in prison, but nothing more.
That drew the ire of Crump who demanded more be done.
“The people who can help address what happened to Samuel Jones and others like him are sitting on this stage,” declared Crump as he concluded the event. “I’m committed to helping Samuel Jones and everyone on this stage should be committed to helping him.”
The Forward Times will continue to follow this discussion to see if the national panel discussion will yield some different results than what has been displayed in the past.